Grounded four months by hydrogen leaks, Atlantis has been declared fit to fly and is being readied for a secret mission to put a satellite in orbit, reportedly to spy on Iraq.
NASA found the shuttle free of dangerous leaks during a fueling test Wednesday and almost immediately began working toward a Nov. 9 or 10 launch."Frankly, we expected the system to be tight. We put a lot of work into it," said NASA Deputy Administrator J.R. Thompson. "We're looking forward to a good launch."
It was welcome news for the space agency, which has come under fire in the past half-year because of shuttle trouble, the Hubble space telescope's flawed mirror and communication problems with the Venus-orbiting Magellan spacecraft.
Atlantis' military mission, the fifth shuttle flight this year, will carry five astronauts and a satellite that civilian experts said will spy on Iraqi forces. The mission originally was scheduled for July but was delayed by leaks discovered in June.
Launch director Bob Sieck said small amounts of hydrogen escaped during the test into Atlantis' engine compartment and around a 17-inch-diameter valve between the orbiter and external tank, the site of earlier problems. But he said the leaks were well within allowable limits.
NASA had replaced Atlantis' external tank, some fuel lines and seals in the valve to try to stop the leaks.
"It's always nice to have a successful test under your belt," Sieck said.