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Shuttle Engineers Begin Attaching Discovery's New Fuel Tank

Shuttle Engineers Begin Attaching Discovery's New Fuel Tank
Suspended by a 175-ton bridge crane, the orbiter Discovery is lowered next to the new External Tank, ET-121, and Solid Rocket Boosters in high bay 3 for mating. (Image credit: NASA/KSC.)

CAPE CANAVERAL - Kennedy Space Centerworkers are giving shuttle Discovery a new fuel tank, and the spaceship shouldbe back at the launch pad within a week.

After a day of prep work, aheavy-duty yellow crane hoisted Discovery skyward overnight inside the 52-storyVehicle Assembly Building.

Tuesday morning, workers were still carefully attaching the orbiter to its newfuel tank and solid rocket boosters.

Six or seven days of workremain to complete all the hook-ups between the ship, the orange fuel tank,booster rockets and the mobile launcher platform. NASA currently plans to haulDiscovery back to the launch pad starting as early as 2 a.m. Monday.

The planned rollout is oneday earlier than predicted when managers first decided to bring Discovery backto the assembly building to swap fuel tanks.

That decision, whichdelayed the first shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia accident from May toJuly, was made so that Discovery could use a tank modified with a heater toprevent dangerous chunks of ice from growing on a pipeline that runs along theoutside of the fuel tank. Tests since the accident show very small pieces ofice can do devastating damage if they hit the heat shield.

Discovery's new fuel tankwas going to fly with Atlantis on the second post-Columbia shuttle mission. Inaddition to the heater, NASA replaced a filter inside the tank because itremains a prime suspect in the erratic operation of a liquid hydrogen valvethat opened and closed more times than usual during two fueling tests.

Meanwhile, shuttle managershave decided against a third fueling test. The test, which would have addedseveral days to the amount of work necessary at the launch pad, is no longernecessary because NASA believes it has enough information from previous teststo identify and fix the cause of the problematic fuel valve.

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John Kelly

John Kelly is the director of data journalism for ABC-owned TV stations at Walt Disney Television. An investigative reporter and data journalist, John covered space exploration, NASA and aerospace as a reporter for Florida Today for 11 years, four of those on the Space Reporter beat. John earned a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky and wrote for the Shelbyville News and Associated Press before joining Florida Today's space team. In 2013, John joined the data investigation team at USA Today and became director of data journalism there in 2018 before joining Disney in 2019. John is a two-time winner of the Edward R. Murrow award in 2020 and 2021, won a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2020 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017. You can follow John on Twitter.