NASA's Hide-and-Seek Game with Atlantis, Ernesto

Tropical Storm Ernesto prompts NASA to make an unexpected reversal — literally. This morning, NASA officials started pulling the Space Shuttle Atlantis off its Florida launch pad as the storm neared. But officials this afternoon changed their minds, and started rolling the shuttle back out.

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Tropical Storm Ernesto came to life this week just as NASA was preparing to send Space Shuttle Atlantis on a mission to restart construction of the International Space Station. NASA managers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida first thought they wouldn't be able to launch. Then this afternoon they decided to give it another try.

NPR's Nell Boyce is there.

(Soundbite of engines)

NELL BOYCE reporting:

This was the sound people heard at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning. It's the crawler, a huge flatbed tractor that was taking Space Shuttle Atlantis away from the launch pad and back into the shelter of a large, hangar-like building. Officials decided they had to make the move because of the threat of strong winds from Ernesto.

But the move made it highly unlikely that NASA would make its launch deadline, which was September 7th. Officials thought they might have to wait until late October. But then at about 3:00 in the afternoon Eastern Time, people heard something completely different.

Mr. BRUCE BUCKINGHAM (Spokesperson, NASA): We decided to go back to the launch pad. We should be back there in about five hours.

BOYCE: That's NASA spokesperson Bruce Buckingham.

Mr. BUCKINGHAM: The storm has decreased to a point where it will not exceed limitations to be at the pad.

BOYCE: Has this every happened before?

Mr. BUCKINGHAM: I can't recollect right now that we've ever made a reversal like this.

BOYCE: NASA is eager to get this mission off the ground. The space station has been left half-finished since the Columbia accident three years ago. To complete the orbiting lab, NASA needs 15 more flights before it retires the shuttle in 2010. Those missions have to happen in sequential order, so any delays to one could mean a delay to all.

Once Atlantis gets back to the launch pad tonight, it will still take some time to get it set up and ready to try again. That's a possibility that recently seemed laughable. Here's Michael Leinbach, a NASA flight director, at a press conference two days ago.

Mr. MICHAEL LEINBACH (Flight Director, NASA): The chances of getting a launch attempt off before September 7 if we stay at the launch pad are pretty good.

BOYCE: Now people at the space center are laughing again, but this time it's because they're surprised and happy.

Nell Boyce, NPR News, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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