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NASA tries to end glitchy August on a high note with shuttle launch tonight

Ares I test, ATK, UtahIt hasn't been the best of times for NASA in recent days. Not only is a presidential panel warning that the space agency will have to dramatically scale back its long-term ambitions if it wishes to stay on budget, but August has been plagued by malfunctions and delays across multiple projects and missions in progress.

A probe known as LCROSS, set to release a spent rocket booster to the moon's surface this fall in a hunt for water ice there, has suffered perhaps the most serious setback. This week, NASA announced that the spacecraft had unexpectedly squandered its fuel in an attempt to maintain its orientation after switching to an alternate attitude sensor.

"Our estimates now are if we pretty much baseline the mission, meaning just accomplish the things that we have to (do) to get the job done with full mission success, we're still in the black on propellant, but not by a lot," LCROSS project manager Daniel Andrews told Spaceflight Now.

Yesterday, NASA hit another snag at a demonstration and ground test of a next-generation rocket intended to be the launcher for the aging space shuttle's replacement. That rocket, known as Ares I (pictured at left), may never get off the ground—the same panel reviewing NASA's future plans is expected to present President Obama with at least a few scenarios that would scrap its development.

So when the rocket's handlers froze the Ares I test firing countdown at 20 seconds and then canceled the demonstration altogether, it was not an auspicious sign. A NASA official told Spaceflight Now that the problem was in a power unit that supports a thrust-direction system; the Ares test has been postponed until Tuesday at the earliest.

Space shuttle Discovery's next mission to the International Space Station, meanwhile, has yet to get off the ground after enduring two launch postponements this week, first due to bad weather at the launch site and then due to a faulty fuel valve in the shuttle's main engine system.

NASA plans for another attempt at blasting off to the station late tonight, and a safe, uneventful shuttle launch could be just the thing to cure NASA's summertime blues. Assuming clear skies in Florida (a 60 percent chance of good weather is forecast) and a clean bill of health for Discovery, the shuttle will lift off from Kennedy Space Center at 11:59 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time).

Photo of Ares I at Utah test site before yesterday's test was called off: NASA TV

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