The space shuttle Atlantis is back at the launch pad after more than two months of extensive fuel tank repairs as NASA primes the spacecraft for a June 8 launch towards the International Space Station (ISS).
Atlantis began rolling toward Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 5:02 a.m. EDT (0902 GMT), making the 3.4-mile (six-kilometer) trip from its cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch site in just under seven hours.
Tracy Young, a NASA spokesperson at KSC, told SPACE.com that Atlantis settled atop its launch pad at 11:47 a.m. EDT (1547 GMT).
The move is a major step towards launch for Atlantis and its STS-117 astronaut crew following a two and one-half-month delay that began on Feb. 26, when a freak storm over Pad 39A pelted the orbiter's foam-covered fuel tank with golf ball-sized hail. Of about 4,200 divots gouged into Atlantis' fuel tank insulation, engineers patched up all but 402 minor dings and invented a new portable sanding tool in one week to finish the job inside KSC's 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building, said John Chapman, NASA's external tank project manager.
"It's a real success story, almost bordering on an Apollo 13-type story to develop that in such a short time," Chapman said Friday, referring to NASA's Apollo 13 Moon shot in 1970, when engineers on Earth worked furiously to improvise fixes and return its three-astronaut crew home after an oxygen tank exploded. "I promise you, it is absolutely ready to go," he said of Atlantis' fuel tank.
NASA has kept close watch on shuttle fuel tank foam since 2003, when a piece of insulation broke free from the Columbia orbiter's tank during launch and breached the spacecraft's left wing-mounted heat shield. The damage led to the loss of the orbiter and its seven-astronaut crew as they reentered the Earth's atmosphere.
Chapman's team sanded and blended new foam on some areas of Atlantis' fuel tank, hand-poured insulation into other divots and removed whole swaths of material -- especially around the 15-story vessel's extensively damaged nose cap -- that was later replaced by spray techniques.
"I am just in awe of the team that's pulled this together," NASA launch director Michael Leinbach said Friday. "I will never forget the day of the storm. I was really wondering if we were going to fix this tank or not."
Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Rick Sturckow, Atlantis' STS-117 mission will deliver two new 17.5-ton truss segments and starboard solar arrays to the ISS in what is slated to be the first of up to four shuttle flights this year for NASA. The additional solar arrays are vital for the addition of international laboratories built by Europe, Japan and Russia to the space station.
Atlantis' 11-day mission will also feature an astronaut swap for the space station's Expedition 15 crew, with NASA spaceflyer Clayton Anderson -- a late addition to the STS-117 crew -- to relieve flight engineer Sunita Williams aboard the orbital laboratory.
"It's just an outstanding effort on the part of hundreds and hundreds of people," NASA shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said last week of the fuel tank repair. "[We're] looking forward to a good launch on June 8."
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