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Shuttle Likely Grounded for at Least Another Week

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A dozen teams of engineers from across the country are trying to figure out what went wrong with a critical part of the space shuttle. A fuel sensor failed a prelaunch test on Wednesday, grounding the space shuttle Discovery. It's unlikely that NASA will be able to launch the shuttle anytime soon. NPR's Richard Harris reports from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

NASA official Wayne Hale showed up to a news conference yesterday with a broad smile, but it was quickly evident that the smile was not because he was bearing good news; it was more like a sign of hopeless optimism.

Mr. WAYNE HALE (NASA Official): If we were to get extremely lucky, it is theoretically possible that we could still launch on Sunday. But I've got to tell you that this represents a really optimistic, good luck scenario, which I think is not very credible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALE: I wish I had better news.

HARRIS: The problem with the fuel sensor has been dragging on for months, so just about the only way it could be solved in a matter of hours would be if something very obvious and easy to fix had been overlooked.

Mr. HALE: The repair that might get us to Sunday is if we go in and wiggle some of the wires and find a loose connection. And you laugh, that probably is the first step in any troubleshooting plan. Some technician's going to put his hands on the wires and the connectors and start wiggling them.

HARRIS: Bad wiring is certainly a possibility, Hale said.

Mr. HALE: That's one of the threads that the troubleshooting team is looking into. That's just one of about 200 things they're looking into right now.

HARRIS: Hale said the space agency has assembled 12 teams of engineers--some in Houston, some in Huntsville and some at other NASA centers and, of course, some at Cape Canaveral where the space shuttle now sits surrounded once again by elaborate gray scaffolding. The bad news is the sensor now seems to be working properly, so it's even harder to figure out what's wrong with it. And by the way, Hale said even if the technical problem hadn't stopped Wednesday's launch, Mother Nature would have.

Mr. HALE: I did go back and find out that the thunderstorms were within 20 nautical miles of the Kennedy Space Center, we would have been a no-go for launch.

HARRIS: Shuttle officials will meet again today and decide whether to keep alive that tiny sliver of hope for a Sunday launch. Richard Harris, NPR News at the Kennedy Space Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Harris
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.