CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Thunderstorms prevented space shuttle Atlantis and its crew from landing Friday, leaving them to circle the Earth hoping the weather would improve by the following day.
The news came as no surprise to the seven astronauts, who are wrapping up a successful mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
For days, the weather outlook had been grim. By dawn, all the forecasts proved to be true and there was no hope of improvement, forcing NASA to pass up both of Friday morning's landing opportunities.
"Appreciate your patience," Mission Control said. "We don't see any value in waiting two or three hours, so we're going to wave off for the day."
"We know you looked at it hard," replied commander Scott Altman. "We appreciate you making the call early and understand."
NASA is now aiming to bring Atlantis back on Saturday morning after 12 days of flight, if not at Kennedy Space Center then possibly at the backup landing site in Southern California.
Forecasters held out only slight hope of improvement in Florida, over the next few days, because of the stalled low-pressure system stretching from the Gulf of Mexico into the Caribbean. The weather over at Edwards Air Force Base, on the other hand, looked good.
The shuttle has enough supplies to stay up until Monday.
NASA prefers a Florida touchdown because of the time and money -- about $1.8 million -- it takes to haul a shuttle across the country atop a modified jumbo jet.
The astronauts settled in and relaxed after getting the news of the delay.
"We're enjoying the view," Altman said.
The astronauts intended to pass the time by watching DVDs they brought on the mission. But when they tried to play them, they found out that their laptops didn't have the proper software.
Engineers on the ground tried to troubleshoot the problem -- just as they did when a hand rail almost prevented spacewalkers from fixing one instrument in Hubble. After more than an hour with no solution, the astronauts gave up.
Astronaut John Grunsfeld radioed to Earth that they'd have to wait to watch something at a terrestrial movie theater.
Atlantis blasted off May 11 on NASA's last trip to Hubble. The astronauts carried out five back-to-back spacewalks to fix and upgrade the 19-year-old observatory, now considered better than ever.
The repairs added five to 10 years to Hubble's working lifetime. Scientists hope to begin beaming back the results by early September.
One of the Hubble cameras that was replaced is returning to Earth aboard Atlantis so it can be put on display at the Smithsonian Institution. A more powerful and sophisticated wide-field camera took its place.
The six men and one woman aboard Atlantis were the last humans to set eyes on Hubble up close. NASA plans no more satellite-servicing missions of this type, with the space telescope or anything else.
That's because the shuttle is being retired next year. The replacement craft will essentially be a capsule to ferry astronauts back and forth to the international space station and, ultimately, the moon.
NASA considered this fifth and final Hubble repair mission so dangerous that, in 2004, a year after the Columbia tragedy, it was canceled. The space agency reinstated it two years later after putting a potential rescue mission in place and developing repair methods for astronauts in orbit.