CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) -- A potentially dangerous hydrogen leak that forced NASA to cancel last week's launch of space shuttle Discovery may have been due to a misaligned seal, a NASA spokesman said Thursday.
"They're analyzing the flight seal, which they found wasn't properly aligned," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel wrote in an e-mail to Reuters.
NASA called off its planned Nov. 5 launch of Discovery on a mission to deliver a storage room, spare parts and a prototype humanoid robot to the International Space Station when gaseous hydrogen began leaking from a vent line as the spaceship was being fueled for flight.
After the scrub, NASA discovered a large crack in the insulating foam on the shuttle's fuel tank, which likely would have canceled the launch if the leak had not been discovered.
The crack, initially believed to be about 7 inches long, turned out to be closer to 20 inches. Technicians have removed the damaged section and found cracking in an underlying structure.
NASA hopes to have repairs finished in time to make the shuttle's next launch opportunity on Nov. 30.
"As you can expect, the program (management) is allowing the work to dictate the schedule and not the other way around," said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring.
NASA has been meticulous about the condition of the tank foam since losing shuttle Columbia and seven astronauts in a 2003 accident triggered by a chunk of insulation falling off the tank during liftoff and striking the ship's wing.
The undetected damage caused the shuttle to break apart as it was returning through the atmosphere for landing after 16 days in space.
The accident eventually led to the decision to cancel the shuttle program, which is being shut down after two or three more flights to complete the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that has been under construction 220 miles above Earth since 1998.
The Obama administration wants NASA to start working on spaceships that can travel deeper into space, such as to asteroids and Mars, and turn over crew ferry flights to the station to private companies, a move that is expected to create a new commercial space travel industry.
Until then, the United States will pay Russia to fly its astronauts to the station at a cost of $51 million per person.
Congress, which approved a scaled-down Obama plan, has not authorized funds for NASA to start work on any shuttle replacement.
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