MIAMI – Mission managers Wednesday tentatively cleared Atlantis for its long-delayed flight to the International Space Station, the first of six shuttle liftoffs on NASA’s ambitious 2008 schedule.

Blastoff is scheduled for Feb. 7 at 2:47 p.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida.

“The crew is trained and they’re ready to go,” said Wayne Hale, shuttle program manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “All the elements are ready to go.” The only concern at the moment is a bent air conditioning hose discovered aboard Atlantis on Tuesday. Ground crews are examining it, Hale said, but “I’m feeling very positive that we’ll come to a good conclusion on this.”

The craft and its seven astronauts have been grounded for two months as experts diagnosed and repaired an intermittently malfunctioning electrical connection between the shuttle and its external fuel tank.

The problem plagued several missions in recent years, but engineers said they finally found the source – a component buried within the wall of the fuel tank – and designed a permanent solution. “The team’s done a great job of being able to isolate where that failure is,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator.

“They have a good fix in place and that failure will not occur again.”

The crew is assigned to carry a European laboratory to the space station and install it during several spacewalks.

If NASA can achieve its goal of six shuttle flights this year, it will be the first time it launched that many missions since 2001.

(c) 2008, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-30-08 1651EST

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