Photos Show How NASA Removed Tanks from Retired Space Shuttles for Station

Shuttle Endeavour's Water Tanks
Behind-the-scenes photographs reveal how the water storage tanks deep inside NASA's space shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour were extracted by the space agency for their use onboard the International Space Station. (Image credit: California Science Center/Dennis Jenkins via

New behind-the-scenes photos reveal how the water storage tanks deep inside NASA's retired space shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour were recently removed by the space agency for future use on the International Space Station.

The photographs of the shuttle tank removals, which were shared with collectSPACEby NASA workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and by the manager for Endeavour's display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, show how the 3-foot-long (0.9 meters) tanks were accessed under the floor of the orbiters' crew cabins and were then extracted through different hatches on each vehicle.

As was the first to report, the retired shuttles' potable water tanks were called back into service by NASA to support a new storage system for the space station. Currently, the astronauts' recycled drinking supply is stored aloft in soft, duffle-like bags that are time-consuming to fill. [Space Shuttle Endeavour on Display (Photos)]

The shuttles' tanks will allow for a larger integrated water reserve, freeing the crew to devote more time to science research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

"NASA assessed various options for the water storage system beginning in mid-2013," said Chad Rowe with NASA's space station vehicle office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "After evaluating the system concepts earlier this year, NASA decided to move forward and retrieve the tanks as a means to minimize project costs."

Unbeknownst to the public at the time, workers in May removed the water tanks from the space shuttle Atlantis, which is on exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Endeavour's four potable water tanks and one waste water tank were extracted last week at the California Science Center, where the orbiter has been on display inside the Samuel Oschin Endeavour Display Pavilion since 2012.

"The Endeavour waste water tank was shipped to the Kennedy Space Center for removal of some sensor and wiring components that will serve as spares for the storage system," Rowe explained. "The waste water tank will be returned to the California Science Center for reinstallation into Endeavour."

The tanks from Atlantis and Endeavour will be checked for cleanliness and leaks before being integrated to become the station's water storage system. They are not anticipated to need modifications.

Aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, under the seats where astronauts sat for launch and landing, is a locker that held the lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters used to clean the orbiter's air of carbon dioxide. Lifting out that container offered a pathway to the water tanks. (Image credit: California Science Center/Dennis Jenkins via

NASA expects to launch the tanks within three to five years for likely installation in the U.S. "Destiny" laboratory, said Rowe.

"The current goal is to maximize the ability to fly key storage system components on multiple vehicles, including U.S commercial cargo vehicles," he said.

Other than Endeavour's waste water tank, any of the water tanks that do not fly to station will be retained by NASA for potential use as spares or for the potential future expansion of the water storage system.

See the water tanks being removed from NASA's space shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour only at

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.