Shuttle ready to fly if weather permits


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle Columbia was poised yesterday to begin the longest flight of the shuttle program, a two-week mission dedicated to medical experiments involving seven astronauts and 48 rats.

Officials at the Kennedy Space Center said no technical problems stood in the way of today's launch of Columbia, at 10:53 a.m., on its 15th mission into space.

The main concern was the weather. While predicting a 90 percent chance of good weather at launching time, Air Force forecasters said conditions at three overseas emergency landing sites raised the possibility of a delay.

No shuttle has ever had to land at an emergency site because of a launching accident, but abort sites at Ben Guerir in Morocco and Moron and Zaragoza in Spain must be accessible before a shuttle can be launched, NASA officials said.

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