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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 14:39 GMT
Atlantis orbiter rolled off pad
The hail stones cut marks in the external tank

The space shuttle Atlantis has been moved back to its hangar to repair hailstorm damage sustained last week.

The 5.5km (3.4-mile) journey aboard the huge crawler-transporter took about seven hours to complete.

The decision to roll the orbiter back to the Vehicle Assembly Building was taken after engineers found small dents in the vehicle's external fuel tank.

The US space agency says Atlantis could be ready to launch again in April if repairs can be done swiftly.

Inside the hangar, further inspections and assessments are being performed.

The golf ball-sized hail stones caused approximately 1,000 to 2,000 divots in the giant external fuel tank and minor surface damage to about 26 heat shield tiles on the orbiter's left wing.

Nasa technicians are now trying assess whether the repairs can be made at the Kennedy Space Center or if the tank needs to be shipped back to its manufacturer near New Orleans.

Return to pad

In the worst case scenario, the tank would be replaced with one being prepared for the next shuttle mission, which had been targeted for late June.

If repairs are possible, the divots and gouges on the rust-coloured foam that lines the external tank would need to be filled and sanded down, said shuttle tank manager John Chapman.

Shuttle rolls back to its hanger (AP)
Engineers will assess the damage and then fix a new launch date
The insulating foam and the heat shield have been of critical concern to Nasa since the destruction of Atlantis' sister ship Columbia and the deaths of its crew in February 2003.

Columbia was struck on launch by a large piece of insulation foam that punctured a hole in its left wing and left it open to the destructive superheated gases of re-entry.

Nasa has redesigned the tank to try to minimise foam loss, and has now carried out three successful flights.

This was the 17th time in the 26-year-old space shuttle programme that a vehicle has had to be moved back to the Vehicle Assembly Building from the launch pad.

If the damage on the tank can be repaired, the launch will be moved to late April or early May. If the tank needs to be replaced, the launch could take place in June.

Atlantis' mission will take it to the International Space Station. Astronauts will fit a new backbone segment to the orbiting platform and install a new set of solar wings.

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