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Shuttle Launched Delayed by Docking Problem on Space Station - 2001-12-01

A Russian supply rocket remains improperly docked to the international space station, while unidentified debris prevents it from making an airtight seal. The visit of the US space shuttle Endeavour is being held up until Russian spacewalkers remove the material.

The US space agency NASA has delayed Endeavour's launch until Tuesday, after a planned spacewalk Monday by two space station cosmonauts.

That was the decision after shuttle and station officials debated whether Endeavour should wait on the launch pad until the matter is solved, or proceed with takeoff and clear the debris after the shuttle arrives.

US station official Jim Van Laak said the debris the Russian crewmen will try to clear looks like an easily removable cord, cable, or rubber seal around the circumference of the docking surface. "Nevertheless, when the crew goes out there, they will be prepared with some cutters and other tools, so that they should be able to deal with something more substantial if, in fact, it's a piece of wire, or something that they can't simply clear by pulling on it," he said.

The Russian rocket, named Progress, holds supplies for the next three-man, Russian-US station crew, which the shuttle is to ferry up together with even more supplies.

Mr. Van Laak said if the debris is not removed, Russia may have to park the vehicle in orbit away from the outpost or jettison it. But he notes that the loss of its contents would not be an emergency, because the station and shuttle hold sufficient cargo to supply the outpost through March. "We have plenty," he said, "so we're not talking about having to remove the crew from the station. But it will be months before another Progress vehicle is available, and you don't discard these things lightly."

Shuttle launch preparations are being conducted under tight security following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. On the day Endeavour does lift off, US military aircraft will patrol a greatly expanded, 55-kilometer radius no-fly zone around the Florida launch pad, while ships will be barred from sailing within 120 kilometers of the coast near the takeoff site.