CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. â€“ Wind and rain at emergency landing sites in Spain and Morocco forced NASA to call off today's launch of space shuttle Atlantis on a mission to fix the international space station.
It was the third delay in as many days, all of them the result of dangerously high wind, and it bumped the flight into next month.
The next opening on the rocket lineup isn't until around May 11. Unless something changes, that may well be Atlantis' next shot â€“ whether NASA likes it or not.
"At this point, we really don't know where we go from here,'' said NASA launch commentator George Diller.
NASA is in a hurry to get Atlantis and its crew of seven to the space station. The station is slipping downward in orbit nearly two miles a week because of increased solar activity, and is down to four functioning batteries, close to the limit.
Despite perfect weather at the launch site, NASA had to give up for the day because none of the three overseas landing sites had acceptable conditions. It was raining at the two landing strips in Spain, and the crosswind was too high at the airfield in Morocco.
NASA hoped the wind in Morocco would shift direction and thereby ease the crosswind just a bit. But it did not â€“ just as it did not at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday and Tuesday.
"It appears again today it has come down to just one thing, and that's wind,'' Diller said.
At least one overseas landing site must be available in case the shuttle has to make an emergency touchdown after liftoff.
The last time NASA had to delay a shuttle flight because of bad weather across the Atlantic was 4Â½ years ago. Atlantis' commander, James Halsell Jr., was on that mission, too.
Whenever they do arrive at the space station, Halsell and his crew will use the shuttle to boost it as much as 27 miles. They also will replace the bad batteries and a broken antenna and fix a loose crane.
Because of the urgent nature of the mission, NASA had decided to attempt a launch three days in a row â€“ a first in 19 years of space shuttle flight.
NASA usually limits the number of consecutive launch attempts to two to give the astronauts and launch team a rest. Managers decided to go for three in a row this time, given the convenient afternoon launch time and the fact that no shuttle problems had cropped up during the countdown.
NASA called off Tuesday's launch attempt with 40 minutes remaining in the countdown, as gale-force gusts of 39 mph swept the pad, well above the launch safety limit. The wind was so strong it ripped off the lower tie of the American flag next to the countdown clock. It flapped back and forth on the flagpole until workers took it down.
On Monday, the wind wasn't nearly as fierce. But it was still strong enough to force a delay.
The 10-day mission is already running late because of Russia's repeated delays in launching a crucial service module to the space station, and the commander's sprained ankle. Halsell twisted his left ankle during training last month, which resulted in a one-week delay.