NASA Postpones Shuttle Launch to Jan. 10

NASA on Thursday delayed the launch of space shuttle Atlantis to Jan. 10 to give workers time off at Christmas.

After back-to-back delays caused by errant fuel gauges, shuttle managers had been targeting a liftoff no earlier than Jan. 2.

"Moving the next launch attempt of Atlantis to Jan. 10 will allow as many people as possible to have time with family and friends at the time of year when it means the most," shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said in a statement.

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Launch attempts on Dec. 6 and 9 were scuttled late in the countdown after some of the hydrogen fuel gauges in Atlantis' external fuel tank failed. The gauges are part of a backup safety system to keep the main engines from running on an empty tank, a potentially catastrophic situation.

A fueling test will be conducted Tuesday in hopes of determining whether the problem is in the gauges or the 100 feet of circuitry between the tank and shuttle. The launch date depends on how quickly the trouble can be resolved.

Atlantis and a seven-man crew will deliver the European lab, Columbus, to the international space station.

At the space station, meanwhile, astronauts are gearing up for a spacewalk Tuesday to inspect a jammed rotary joint needed to turn the starboard set of solar wings toward the sun.

They also will check another mechanism on the same side of the orbiting outpost that may have been damaged by a micrometeorite or piece of space junk last weekend. That component is also part of the solar energy-producing system.

The two unrelated problems are limiting power production at the space station, and NASA wants to fix them as soon as possible in order to avoid delaying future missions, officials said Thursday. Engineers hope the spacewalk inspections by commander Peggy Whitson and Daniel Tani will uncover the sources of both problems.