CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A potentially dangerous hydrogen gas leak cropped up during the fueling of space shuttle Endeavour on Saturday and forced NASA to postpone the launch by at least four days.
It was almost identical to a leak that stalled another flight back in March and threatened to bump Endeavour's space station construction mission all the way into July.
NASA halted the countdown shortly after midnight, less than seven hours before Endeavour was due to blast off. The seven astronauts had yet to suit up.
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Launch director Mike Leinbach said the leak, located at a vent line hookup on the fuel tank, was significant. Hydrogen gas is extremely volatile and can burn in large enough quantities, he noted.
"There's no way we could have continued," Leinbach said at a hastily called news conference. "It's a commodity you just don't mess with."
The hydrogen gas leak is similar to one that NASA faced while trying to launch Discovery three months ago. That flight was delayed four days because of the problem and shortened as well. Atlantis, however, encountered no such trouble during its countdown in May for the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission.
NASA's launch team immediately began draining Endeavour's external fuel tank while trying to figure out what went wrong. In March, the leak occurred where a vent line hooks up to the tank. The hookup was replaced along with a couple of seals and the seepage stopped, but engineers never did determine the exact source of the trouble.
Officials said workers wouldn't be able to get to the vent line on Endeavour's tank until Sunday.
NASA is up against a tight deadline. A four-day delay would make Endeavour's next launch attempt Wednesday. But that's the day the space agency is supposed to launch a moon-bound spacecraft aboard an unmanned rocket.
Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team, said it was too soon to say which mission would take priority. "We haven't even begun to work that yet," he said.
In any event, if Endeavour isn't flying by next Saturday, it will have to wait until July 11 for the next launch attempt because of unfavorable sun angles that would make the shuttle too hot while docked at the international space station.
During the 16-day mission, Endeavour and its crew are supposed to deliver the final segment of Japan's huge space station lab, along with some spare parts for the orbiting outpost and more than 600 pounds of food for the six men living there.
When Endeavour pulls up, there will be 13 people together in orbit for the first time.
Of the seven shuttle astronauts, only one is a woman, a Canadian. The rest of the crew are U.S. citizens. On board the space station, the crew is more international. The six occupants, all men, represent Belgium, Canada, Japan and Russia, as well as the United States.
Endeavour and its crew will spend 11 1/2 days at the space station. Five spacewalks are planned.
If Endeavour flies this month, its arrival will come at a particularly busy time for the space station. The station crew doubled in size late last month; that's taken some adjustment for everyone involved. Then just a week ago, two of the crew went out on a spacewalk. Earlier this week, the two put their spacesuits back on and went into the air lock to work on a docking hatch.
NASA is pushing to launch Endeavour as soon as possible because of the demanding lineup of shuttle flights over the next 1 1/2 years. The space agency is under presidential direction to retire its three remaining shuttles and complete the station by the end of 2010 if possible.
"It has a lot of downstream effects if we punt to July," Moses said. "Every launch delay pushes the next one back. It's not the end of the world, but it's not the simplest thing to do."
Eight shuttle missions remain, including Endeavour's upcoming trip. Each one is dedicated to finishing the station, currently 81 percent complete, and hauling up supplies, spare parts and experiments.
The space station will be supplied over the long haul by unmanned Russian, European and Japanese craft, but none as big as the shuttle. That's why NASA needs to deliver large spare parts now, while the shuttles are still flying.
Until NASA's new spaceship is ready to carry passengers — which isn't expected to happen before 2015 — U.S. astronauts will hitch rides back and forth on the cramped Russian Soyuz spacecraft for up to $51 million a person.