Just after dawn, an alligator (in the foreground) watches as a tugboat pushes the Pegasus barge carrying External Tank 119 away from Kennedy Space Center for transfer to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans on Sept. 27, 2005.
CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA has a plan to fix its problem-plagued external fuel tanks, and the agency is studying the possibility of launching its next two shuttle missions in May and July.
NASA aims to replace an external tank foam ramp that shed a one-pound piece of insulation on the agency's first post-Columbia mission, prompting managers to put future flights on hold.
NASA shuttle chief Wayne Hale met with managers Thursday and asked them to determine what it would take to launch a second test flight in May and an International Space Station assembly mission in July.
Hale "was very straight-forward in saying, 'Look, these are not launch dates, but I just want you guys to come back and tell me what it would take to get there, if we can get there,' " said Kyle Herring, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA's next mission officially is targeted for a March launch. But foam insulation problems and hurricane damage to agency facilities have made that all but impossible.
"I think that May would be the earliest, based on two hurricanes that not only caused damage at some of the facilities but also displaced the work force," Herring said.
Hurricane Katrina damaged NASA's Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The agency estimates its repair and recovery costs will be about $1.1 billion.
Shuttle engines are tested at Stennis. Tanks are made at the Louisiana factory. Hurricane Rita forced NASA to close JSC last week, but no serious damage was done.
Katrina destroyed or damaged the homes of many of the 3,500 NASA and contractor employees who work at Stennis and Michoud. Many still are living in temporary housing.
"The work force is the first and foremost priority -- making sure that they are safe, and that they are taken care of. At the same time, a lot of those people who are affected are also motivated to get back to the business of flying space flights," Herring said.
"Even with the devastation to their lives, it's been kind of remarkable that they have stepped up and are back at work and are trying to balance that with their own personal issues."
The 2,000 workers at
Louisiana plant will play a key role in fixing an external tank foam ramp that
shed a one-pound
piece of insulation during Discovery's July 26 launch.
In a haunting reminder of the Columbia accident, the foam nearly hit the shuttle's right wing.
A 1.67-pound chunk of foam from Columbia's tank punched a hole in that shuttle's left wing, enabling hot gasses to rip the ship apart during atmospheric reentry.
The foam that doomed Columbia was designed to keep ice from building up on and potentially breaking off of an area where metal struts connect the tank to the nose of the orbiter.
A heater replaced the so-called bipod ramp as part of a $205 million post-Columbia effort to fix the tank.
On Discovery's flight, foam broke off a protuberance air load ramp that runs along the side of the 15-story tank. Its purpose: To ensure smooth airflow and minimize vibration around nearby pipes and cables.
NASA plans to remove the 37-foot ramp, replacing it with a new type of foam that will be applied with more exacting techniques designed to prevent shedding.
The area will be outfitted with instrumentation to better understand aerodynamic forces that could cause damage in flight.
Engineers think the change will work because the first 10 feet of the ramp was removed and replaced in that same fashion prior to Discovery's flight.
The work was done so that a safety modification could be made beneath the ramp, and no foam was shed from the reworked area.
The tank for NASA's next shuttle mission is being brought by barge back to the New Orleans factory and is expected to arrive there Sunday.
Engineers plan to use high-tech inspection gear to examine the ramp. Then they'll remove it and dissect it to try to learn more about the foam shedding phenomenon.
A return to Kennedy Space Center by January would put NASA in position to launch in May.
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