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Woodpecker damage delays shuttle launch indefinitely


Riddled with holes drilled by woodpeckers, the space shuttle Discovery will have to retreat to the hangar for repairs to its fuel-tank insulation, forcing an indefinite postponement of the launching that had been scheduled for this week, NASA officials at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., say.

The birds were identified as yellow-shafted flickers, a common woodpecker in eastern North America. Technicians counted at least six dozen holes. Some birds penetrated to the tank's metal wall, but caused no damage to it.

At a news briefing Friday, Al Sofge, assistant launching director at the Kennedy center, tried to be philosophical about having one of the $2 billion spaceships, built to withstand the rigors of orbital flight, driven off its launching pad by a flock of birds with mating on their minds.

"I consider this just one more rock in the road to success," he said.

Bruce Buckingham, a spokesman at the Kennedy center, said that for some reason the woodpeckers were more aggressive this year: "There's been some history to this kind of problem, but not to this degree."

Yellow-shafted flickers peck dead limbs or tin roofs in courtship and territorial displays.

On the advice of the bird experts, NASA technicians rigged plastic owl decoys and played tapes of hooting by great horned owls, predators of woodpeckers.

Mr. Buckingham said this had apparently driven the flickers away from the Discovery and prevented any similar damage to the Atlantis, the shuttle on the other launching pad.

The actual repairs should take no more than a week or two, engineers said. But then the Discovery would run into scheduling conflicts with two other missions with higher priorities. NASA officials said Friday that the shuttle might not be rescheduled to fly until August.

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