CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ NASA's decision to wait until at least June to launch space shuttle Atlantis also sets back the next three shuttle missions and extends one astronaut's time on the international space station.
Golfball-size hail left thousands of dents on the foam insulation on Atlantis' fuel tank as it sat on the launch pad in February. The shuttle was sent back for repairs, forcing NASA to miss the original March 15 launch date.
NASA managers said Tuesday that they were pleased with the progress but that the new launch date would be no earlier than June 8 _ a nearly three-month delay.
``We don't see any show stoppers in front of us, but we understand there still is quite a bit of work to do on the tank,'' said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.
Atlantis' six astronauts are scheduled to deliver a new pair of solar arrays to the space station and are in ``good spirits,'' space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said after the new launch date was set Tuesday.
``They're happy to spend a little more time in training but they're anxious to fly,'' he said.
A June launch of Atlantis pushes back the three other shuttle flights NASA still plans this year. It also delays the return of U.S. astronaut Sunita ``Suni'' Williams, who has been living on the space station since December. She is scheduled to fly home on Endeavour, which was to launch at the end of June but now is scheduled in early August.
Williams is expected to break the U.S. record for continuous time in space. Her current crew mate, Michael Lopez-Alegria, will set that record when he returns to Earth next week in a Russian Soyuz vehicle after 214 days in space. The longest stay in space was 437 days by Russian Valeri Polyakov.
``It doesn't really matter. I have lots to do up here,'' Williams told reporters Tuesday via satellite.
Gerstenmaier said Williams could return on Atlantis if Endeavour is delayed again.
The foam insulation prevents a dangerous ice buildup on the tank during fueling on the launch pad.
The foam is of special concern since a chunk flew off during space shuttle Columbia's launch in 2003 and struck the orbiter. The damage allowed fiery gases to penetrate Columbia during re-entry, breaking up the craft and killing its seven astronauts.
NASA redesigned the external tank, removing large amounts of foam, before last year's three successful shuttle missions. Another design change to the tank is planned before the shuttle program ends in 2010.