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"Atlantis' passes fueling test, cleared for flight

NASA found Atlantis to be free of dangerous hydrogen leaks during a fueling test Wednesday, clearing the shuttle for a mission to carry a satellite into space, reportedly to spy on Iraq. It was welcome news for the space agency, which has endured biting criticism during the past half-year because of shuttle trouble, the Hubble Space Telescope's flawed mirror and space station design problems.

"We conducted a very successful test. We saw exactly what we expected to see _ a good, tight system," said Forrest McCartney, director of Kennedy Space Center.

Launch director Bob Sieck said small amounts of the highly flammable fuel escaped into Atlantis' engine compartment and around a 17-inch-diameter valve in plumbing between the orbiter and its external tank, the site of earlier problems. But he said the leaks were well within allowable limits.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration replaced Atlantis' external tank and connecting fuel lines during the past few months and installed new seals in the 17-inch-diameter valve.

NASA plans to launch Atlantis around Nov. 9 or 10 with a top-secret Defense Department satellite that will spy on Iraqi forces, sources speaking on condition of anonymity said. The mission originally was scheduled for July, but was delayed when the shuttle's leaks were discovered during a fueling test in June.

A launch date will be set after a flight readiness review that begins Monday.

"It's always nice to have a successful test under your belt," Sieck said. "That just leaves one more to go, and that's Columbia. We think we've got that one. We'll know for sure about the middle of next week."

Columbia, grounded by hydrogen leaks since May, will undergo a more extensive fueling test next week. Nearly a dozen television cameras will be mounted in the engine compartment to help track any lingering leaks.

Hydrogen flooded Columbia's engine compartment during the last launch attempt in mid-September, although no leakage was evident in fuel lines between the orbiter and tank.

NASA stopped trying to launch Columbia after four tries and instead got Discovery up on Oct. 6 with a satellite that will study the sun. Discovery's successful mission ended a 5{-month grounding of the fleet.

Columbia could lift off carrying the Astro observatory as early as December if the tests are good, Sieck said.