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NASA Postpones Atlantis Launch Because of Hail Damage

U.S. space officials have delayed the March 15 launch of the shuttle Atlantis after it was damaged by a big hail storm at the launch pad Monday. Officials say the launch is now expected to take place sometime after April 20. VOA's Brian Wagner reports from Miami.

Officials for the U.S. space agency, NASA, announced the delay Tuesday, one day after a hail storm moved through the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Technicians conducted an initial review of the damage and found scores of small dents in the shuttle's external fuel tank as well as minor damage to some tiles on the shuttle's wings.

NASA officials say they will now bring the shuttle back to the assembly building to conduct further inspections and make repairs.

Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said thunderstorms and hail are not uncommon in the area. But he said the damage to the foam on the shuttle's external tank is the worst he has ever seen from a hail storm. "Usually the hail is quite small and rarely causes damage. This was large, wind-driven, damaging hail. Looking at this, it's very clear a number of these areas need to be repaired," he said.

Hale said the Atlantis mission is now expected to take place after a scheduled flight by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft in April. He says the Soyuz plans to visit the International Space Station and begin returning to Earth on April 20.

The six-person crew of the Atlantis also is scheduled to dock with the space station during its mission. NASA officials say the Atlantis mission will include three spacewalks to install new solar panels and perform other construction work on the space station.

The latest shuttle mission took place in December when a team of astronauts aboard the Discovery spent 12 days in orbit. The crew delivered a new section for the International Space Station and performed wiring work for the solar panels.