( SpaceDaily ) - The US space agency delayed Tuesday the scheduled March 15 launch of the space shuttle Atlantis for at least a month due to hail damage to the orbiter's external fuel tank. A strong thunderstorm swept the Cape Canaveral, Florida, area Monday, pelting the shuttle with hail as it sat at a Kennedy Space Center launch pad, being prepared for a mission to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said the shuttle and its launcher had to be rolled back to its hangar to repair the damage.
"This constitutes the worst damage from hail that we have seen on external tank foam," Wayne Hale, manager of the Space Shuttle Program, said at a news conference.
"We see the next launch opportunity end-April," Hale said. "It will be about a month before we can talk about heading back to the launch posture ... given the repair schedule and the ISS requirements."
Hale said the delay was not expected to affect the NASA timetable for five shuttle launches to the ISS scheduled this year.
If Atlantis's external fuel tank needs to be returned to the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, the delay may be prolonged, another NASA official said.
The 11-day Atlantis mission is aimed at continuing construction of the ISS. NASA plans to deliver and install the European Space Agency's laboratory Columbus on the orbiting station in October.
During the last shuttle mission to the ISS, in December, Discovery astronauts rewired the outpost's power system and continued constructing the station by installing a truss segment on its grid-like structure.