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NASA Mulls Fuel Tank Test for Next Shuttle Flight

NASA Mulls Fuel Tank Test for Next Shuttle Flight
Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, external tank number 119 hangs suspended horizontally in preparations for its fuel sensor swap.
(Image: © NASA/Cory Huston.)

CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA ismapping out plans to test shuttle Discovery'sexternal tank at its Kennedy Space Center launch pad, but a final decision onwhether to proceed with the fuel-loading operation still is pending.

The test would involvepumping more than a half-million gallons of super cold liquid hydrogen andliquid oxygen into the 15-story tank to test changes made to it, agencyofficials said Wednesday.

Among other things, thetest - which would take place about June 1 - would enable engineers todetermine whether four new liquid hydrogen fuel-depletion sensors in the tankare working properly.

Kyle Herring, a spokesmanfor NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said engineers have been asked todraw up plans for a test, but managers still have not made a final decision onwhether to carry it out.

The fuel-depletionsensors serve the same purpose as automobile fuel gauges and also provide aback-up means of making sure the shuttle's main engines shut down properly.

A malfunction could prompta premature shutdown, which could lead to an emergency landing attempt, or theengines could continue running until all fuel was exhausted, potentiallytriggering a catastrophic failure.

One of the four sensorsoriginally installed in Discovery's tank produced unexpectedreadings during an electrical test in late February. Managers subsequentlydecided to replace all four, a move that forced NASA to delayits second post-Columbia test flight from May to July.

NASA encountered problemswith the same sensors during afuel-loading test before Discovery's launchlast July. The troubles did not recur during a subsequent launchcountdown and NASA proceededwith the flight.

KSC spokesman BruceBuckingham said NASA has enough time in its launch-processing schedule toaccommodate a tanking test. Discovery remains scheduled for a May 19 move toits pad and launch still is targeted for July 1.

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