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Shuttle dodges obstacles before liftoff

Seated with the insignia are Commander Steven Lindsey, right, and pilot Charles Hobaugh. Standing, from left, are mission specialists Michael Gernhardt, left, Janet Kavandi and James Reilly  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Illegal immigrants in Florida. Suspected terrorists in Morocco. An ailing robotic arm in space. Many surprising twists have threatened the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, but the most pressing worry ahead of Thursday's launch was much more conventional.

Hours before the predawn liftoff, ground managers said there was a 40 percent chance that inclement weather could postpone the launch of Atlantis, which will carry a $165 million front door for spacewalkers living in the international space station.

Launch a trip to KSC  

The outlook for the next two mornings looked even grimmer. Forecasters said there was a 60 percent chance that storm clouds and lightning would ground the shuttle.

Watch a NASA animation of the air lock being lifted from Atlantis  
Message Board  
Mission Guide  

On Wednesday, however, preparations for the predawn flight from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida were proceeding smoothly, NASA ground controllers said. Launch time was scheduled for 5:04 a.m. EDT.

Shuttle managers have already encountered unexpected launch risks at home and abroad this week. An emergency landing strip in Morocco was closed Tuesday because of security concerns. The move came after U.S. State Department officials warned of possible terrorist threats in the Northern African country.

But with other backup shuttle landing sites in Spain and Senegal, the one in Morocco was "not essential for this launch," NASA spokesman George Diller said.

On Monday, a security breach took place at the Kennedy Space Center. Authorities detained more than one dozen illegal immigrants, found in a high-security beach area near the shuttle launch pads. The men, all Chinese except for one Jamaican, came ashore in a smuggler's boat and did not seem threatening, NASA said.

Robot arm to hoist air lock

Already, the Atlantis flight had been delayed since June. The main reason, persistent problems with a sophisticated robotic crane, which shuttle astronauts delivered to space station Alpha in April.

During testing in orbit, the $600 million, mobile arm developed a mysterious case of arthritis in one of its numerous joints, used to move itself, much like an inchworm, along the exterior of Alpha.

Alpha's robot arm will lift this 6.5 ton air lock so that spacewalker can attach it to the space station
Alpha's robot arm will lift this 6.5 ton air lock so that spacewalker can attach it to the space station  

The Canadian-built robot is needed to install the 6.5-ton air lock to Alpha. The air lock will allow space station residents to venture from the orbiting outpost in Russian or U.S. spacesuits, without the assistance of visiting shuttles.

Shuttle astronauts plan to conduct three spacewalks to install the air lock and four auxiliary gas chambers during the 11-day mission. The third spacewalk will be staged from the new Alpha air lock instead of the one on Atlantis.

The shuttle will lift off sporting a brand new engine under the hood. One of its three main engines has an upgraded fuel turbo-pump, designed without welds to make it safer, NASA said.

Deep sea, deep space

The five-person Atlantis crew includes:

-Commander Steve Lindsey, an Air Force test pilot from California who has logged more than 3,800 hours of flying time in 50 different types of aircraft. Lindsey, who will make his third shuttle flight, helped design an advanced "glass cockpit" upgrade for the shuttle fleet.

-Pilot Charles Hobaugh, a Marine Corps officer who flew combat missions in the Persian Gulf War. He grew up in Alaska, where he starting flying airplanes before he drove a car.

-Shuttle arm operator Janet Kavandi, a chemist from Missouri who will operate the shuttle arm as it hands over the air lock to the space station's robotic arm. Her first space shuttle mission was the last shuttle flight to the Mir space station back in 1998.

-Spacewalker Michael Gernhardt has worked as a professional deep-sea diver, working on oil field construction and repair projects around the world. The experience comes in handy when he floats in space, said the Ohio bioengineer.

-Spacewalker James Reilly, a Texas geologist, has made maps in Antarctica and descended deep into the Gulf of Mexico to study exotic life. He said his dream to become an astronaut took wing while sitting in the dentist's chair.

• NASA Human SpaceFlight
• The Space Shuttle Clickable Map
• Oceanography from the Space Shuttle
• NASA Space Shuttle Virtual Tour
• Boeing: Space Shuttle Homepage
• Earth from Space

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