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.
Credit: NASA/KSC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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