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"Atlantis' launch off; will try again Tuesday

The weather was lousy Saturday, but the forecast for today and Monday was even worse. So, NASA pressed on toward a scheduled 4:43 p.m. liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis.

To no avail.

By 4 p.m. it had become clear even to NASA's most determined optimists: A huge weather system was funneling clouds, lightning and heavy rain from the Gulf of Mexico eastward toward the Kennedy Space Center, and there would be no letup for days. The launch attempt was scrubbed and the crew removed from the orbiter.

NASA plans its next attempt Tuesday at 3:31 p.m., although the weather is not expected to improve much by then. A decision on when to restart the countdown will be made Monday.

"It didn't look very promising," said NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham, "but we gave it the best shot we had."

Thunderstorm and lightning activity around the Kennedy Space Center was intense.

A few hours before liftoff, with the crew at the pad preparing to board Atlantis, lightning struck the pad's lightning-protection system but was deflected harmlessly into the ground.

A large, fiberglass mast extends above the service structure that supports the shuttle. Steel cables attached to the mast run to the ground 1,100 feet to the north and south of the pad. Lightning strikes run to the ground through the cable.

For additional safety, parts of the shuttle and its surrounding structure are grounded independently.

Air Force weather personnel counted 18 lightning strikes within 5 miles of the launch pad in the four hours before scheduled liftoff.

The mission features the docking of Atlantis with the Russian space station Mir _ the first such joint mission in 20 years. Some of the visiting Russian VIPs reportedly will miss the launch, though, since they had planned to head home today.