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July 7, 2011 / Dave Gorham

No Surprise, Weather’s Responsible for 30% of Shuttle Delays

This Friday will mark the end of a 30-year era with NASA’s final shuttle launch at 11:26 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral – weather permitting, of course. Right now there’s a good chance for showers and thunderstorms on Friday at the Cape and the weather conditions have to be just right in order for launch to take place. If there are thunderstorms in the vicinity, Atlantis’ last flight will be postponed.

Atlantis lifting off. Photo: NASAAtlantis lifting off. Photo: NASA

There’s an increased chance for showers and thunderstorms across Florida the next couple of days as we continue to track Disturbance 13, which is currently 150 miles west-northwest of Key West. It’s moving to the north at 3-5 mph and is forecast to gradually move northward across Florida and the northeastern Gulf of Mexico over the next couple of days. On this track it should move into the Florida Panhandle late Saturday morning or early Saturday afternoon. Late this weekend into early next week, this disturbance is expected to move into the southeastern U.S., and then be caught up in a front moving off the Mid-Atlantic coast. This disturbance remains quite disorganized and wind shear remains high across the eastern Gulf at this time. Therefore, the chance of development into a tropical cyclone over the next 48 hours is low at around 10 percent. However, periods of heavy rain and gusty winds in thunderstorms can be expected across parts of Florida the rest of this week. Space Shuttle Weather Officer Kathy Winters is currently giving Atlantis and its crew only a 30 percent chance for favorable weather conditions on Friday. This means there’s a 70% chance the flight could be delayed until Saturday or Sunday.

 Current radar as of 11:30 a.m. CDT. Image: ImpactWeather

 Disturbance 13 will bring an increased chance for showers and thunderstorms the next few days to Florida. Image: ImpactWeather TropicsWatch

Atlantis is scheduled to make a final supply run to the International Space Station before going into retirement. The primary goal of STS-135 is to haul the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module up to the International Space Station. It’s a 21-foot-long cylindrical module that will be loaded with 5 tons of critical supplies, spare parts and equipment to stock up the station before the shuttles are retired. Thousands of pounds of food, clothes, experiments and other supplies are included. The mission will last 12 days and will be crewed by four astronauts.  Almost a million people are expected to attend the final launch of the space shuttle program.

 Atlantis crew members from left to right are Rex Walheim, Chris Ferguson, Sandy Magnus and Doug Hurley. Photo: NASA

This will be the 33rd and final flight for Atlantis and the 135th flight for the space shuttle program. If weather delays the launch on Friday, NASA said it must launch by Sunday or wait until at least July 16 since an unmanned rocket is scheduled to lift off next week.


This chart is a bit outdated (2007) but it still gives you a good example of how many times the weather is to blame for shuttle delays. More than half of the delays are due to technical glitches followed second by delays from bad weather. Graphic: NASA

Only about 25 percent of shuttle missions launch on the date they are scheduled due mainly to weather or technical issues with the shuttle or launch pad. However, there are various other reasons that have contributed to delays over the years. Some are a little crazier than others, but probably my favorite was back in 1995 when woodpeckers drilled more than 200 holes in the insulating foam covering Discovery’s fuel tank. NASA had to repair the ship and then planted owl decoys and sound blasters to keep the birds away from the shuttle. 

 Here’s a picture of the holes the woodpeckers drilled through the fuel tank foam. Those were some bad birds! Photo: Discovery Channel


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