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NASA plans first space shuttle launch of year next week

NASA managers would press ahead with the first launch of space shuttle of the year next week, three months later than originally planned because of a hail storm that pockmarked the spacecraft's external tank.

After a two-day meeting at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA officials agreed to launch Atlantis at 7:38 p.m. EDT (2338 GMT) June 8 on a mission to deliver a new pair of solar arrays to the international space station.

The launch had been set for mid-March, but a storm that droped golf-ball sized hail on the launch pad damaged insulating foam on the external tank.

NASA managers are especially cautious when it comes to the external tank since a piece of foam fell off Columbia's tank in 2003 and hit the spacecraft's wing. Damage from the impact allowed fiery gases to penetrate Columbia during descent, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

After the hail storm, Atlantis was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where technicians painstakingly repaired thousands of gashes in the tank's foam.

The postponement of Atlantis' launch forced NASA to cut the expected number of shuttle flights this year from five to four and pushed back the flight schedule for the rest of the year.

Astronaut Clayton Anderson was added to the previously six-person Atlantis crew so he can replace U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams on the space station. Otherwise, Williams would have spent eight months at the station, instead of the more typical six months. Her original return trip to Earth aboard shuttle Endeavour was pushed back from early July to late August.

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