NASA Eyes Fuel Tank Damage for March Shuttle Launch
Camera images show fuel tank damage caused during a Feb. 26, 2007 hail storm at NASA's Pad 39A launch site where the Atlantis orbiter is being prepared for a March 15 launch.
This story was updated at 1:18 p.m. EST
NASA mission managers discussing the planned March 15 launch of the space shuttle Atlantis have added one more topic to their standard preflight meeting: hail damage to the orbiter's external tank.
A strong thunderstorm passed over NASA's Pad 39A launch site [image] at Florida's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral late Monday, showering Atlantis's foam-covered fuel tank with hail, NASA officials said [image].
"The remote cameras indicate some damage to the external tank, but a full assessment on the is just getting underway due to the pad being closed for fuel loading," NASA officials said in a statement, which stated that the storm occurred at about 5:00 p.m. EST (2200 GMT) Monday. "The two-day Flight Readiness Review at NASA's Kennedy Space Center will continue in parallel with Kennedy Ground Operations assessment of the external tank damage."
A NASA press briefing to discuss the shuttle fuel tank hail damage is scheduled for no earlier than 4:00 p.m. EST (2100 GMT) today and will be broadcast live on NASA TV.
The Flight Readiness Review (FRR) is a traditional two-day meeting that precedes every NASA shuttle launch to determine whether a mission is ready to fly. The review board will be briefed on the impact of the Atlantis fuel tank hail damage by mid-day Wednesday, NASA officials said.
Atlantis is currently slated to launch at about 6:43 a.m. EDT (1043 GMT) March 15 on NASA's STS-117 construction mission to International Space Station (ISS). Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Rick Sturckow, Atlantis' STS-117 astronauts will deliver two new starboard ISS solar arrays and retract an older solar wing during their planned 11-day mission.
Atlantis itself, as well as its payload, are protected from weather by the shroud-like Rotating Service Structure at Pad 39A.
Hail damage has prompted shuttle fuel tank repairs in the past.
NASA postponed its planned May 1999 launch of the shuttle Discovery's STS-96 mission due to hail damage that etched 650 divots in the 15-story fuel tank's foam insulation. The shuttle was rolled back to NASA's cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs.
Woodpeckers damaged Discovery's shuttle fuel tank in 1995 during the STS-70 mission, also prompting repairs.
NASA must launch Atlantis during the March window or else wait until late April to allow the planned 10-day ISS crew change between the station's Expedition 14 and Expedition 15 astronauts.
The Expedition 15 crew is slated to launch on April 7.
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