CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA called off yesterday's launch of space shuttle Atlantis after a pair of fuel gauges in its big external tank failed to work properly, a recurring problem ever since the Columbia disaster.

Shuttle managers said the next launch attempt would be no earlier than tomorrow. Atlantis is loaded with a European space station lab, Columbus, that has been waiting for years to fly to the International Space Station.

After meeting well into the evening, shuttle managers decided to forgo a launch attempt today to give engineers more time to figure out what was wrong and, quite possibly, work around the problem. "We want to sleep on it," said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team."

Preliminary indications are that the problem might be with an open circuit rather than the gauges themselves - perhaps a spliced line or bad connector - which would be easier to fix.

Because of poor sun angles and computer concerns, NASA would have to wait until the beginning of January to launch Atlantis and the European Space Agency's space station lab, Columbus, if they aren't flying by next Thursday or Friday.

The postponement was a keen disappointment for the European Space Agency. The $2 billion lab has been in the works for nearly a quarter-century, and was held up for years by NASA's repeated space station design problems and, more recently, the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

"Of course, we would love to fly on time, but we want to fly when it's safe," said Alan Thirkettle, the European space station program manager.