Columbia passed an elaborate fueling test Tuesday after months of work to fix dangerous hydrogen leaks, and a jubilant NASA said the shuttle will be prepared for a December launch. "We ended up with a tight ship," shuttle director Bob Crippen said. "As far as we're concerned right now, Columbia is ready to go fly as soon just as we put it through its final launch preps."
It is the first time in five months all three spaceships are clear for flight. Atlantis was found to be free of hydrogen leaks during a fueling test last week. It is scheduled to lift off Nov. 9 with a satellite that reportedly will spy on Iraq.
"The next best thing to launching is passing the tanking test," said launch director Bob Sieck.
Sieck said NASA's image is bound to improve now that the entire fleet is back in service. Discovery's flight earlier this month, in fact, started what looks to be an upward trend, Crippen said.
During Tuesday's three-hour test, Columbia's external tank was filled with more than 385,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen to pinpoint any more of the dangerous leaks that have kept the shuttle grounded since May. A small amount of hydrogen escaped into the engine compartment but was well within allowable limits.
It was NASA's most extensive fueling test of a shuttle. Ten TV cameras and 17 sensors were mounted in Columbia's engine compartment, the site of previous leakage.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has tried four times to send Columbia on an astronomy mission.
Officials believe workers accidentally damaged components in Columbia's engine compartment while searching for contamination after the shuttle's last flight in January.
The leaks on Columbia and Atlantis were not found until the spaceships were fueled.
Crippen said Columbia could be launched in early December if preparations go well and Atlantis goes up on time. NASA likes to have at least three weeks between missions.
NASA announced Tuesday that Atlantis is scheduled to lift off sometime between 6:30 and 10:30 p.m. Nov. 9. The precise time will not be announced until nine minutes before liftoff because of the classified nature of the Defense Department mission.
Delta rocket blastoff a success
CAPE CANAVERAL _ A Delta rocket blasted off Tuesday carrying a satellite that will expand international telephone and facsimile services on ships, planes, trains and other vehicles.
The unmanned 125-foot-tall rocket roared into a cloudy, moonlit sky on time at 6:16 p.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The satellite separated from the booster as planned about 44 minutes later and was in orbit around Earth.
Rockets aboard the satellite were to steer it into its final orbit over the course of a few days.
It was the 200th launch by a Delta, more than any other U.S. rocket, said Stephanie Lee-Miller, director of the Transportation Department's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
"Lost' spy satellite found
WASHINGTON _ A U.S. spy satellite that was believed to have suffered catastrophic failure and broken apart not long after it was launched in March has been spotted 503 miles high by amateur astronomers.
It apparently has been there all along, said Ted Molczan of Toronto, who tracked the bright object seen by three other amateurs and determined it was the secret payload put into orbit from the shuttle Atlantis on March 1.