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NASA Eyes Fuel Tank Damage for March Shuttle Launch

NASA Eyes Fuel Tank Damage for March Shuttle Launch
Camera images show fuel tank damage caused during a Feb. 26, 2007 hail storm at NASA's Pad 39A launch site where the Atlantis orbiter is being prepared for a March 15 launch. (Image credit: NASA/<a href=""></a>.)

This story was updated at 1:18 p.m. EST

NASA mission managers discussing the plannedMarch 15 launch of the spaceshuttle Atlantis have added one more topic to their standard preflightmeeting: hail damage to the orbiter's external tank.

A strongthunderstorm passed over NASA's Pad 39A launch site [image]at Florida's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral late Monday, showeringAtlantis's foam-covered fuel tank with hail, NASA officials said [image].

"The remotecameras indicate some damage to the external tank, but a full assessment on theis just getting underway due to the pad being closed for fuel loading," NASAofficials said in a statement, which stated that the storm occurred at about 5:00p.m. EST (2200 GMT) Monday. "The two-day FlightReadiness Review at NASA's Kennedy Space Center will continue in parallel withKennedy Ground Operations assessment of the external tank damage."

A NASA press briefing to discuss the shuttle fuel tank hail damage is scheduled for no earlier than 4:00 p.m. EST (2100 GMT) today and will be broadcast live on NASA TV.

TheFlight Readiness Review (FRR) is a traditional two-day meeting that precedesevery NASA shuttle launch to determine whether a mission is ready to fly. Thereview board will be briefed on the impact of the Atlantis fuel tank haildamage by mid-day Wednesday, NASA officials said.

Atlantisis currently slated to launch at about 6:43 a.m. EDT (1043 GMT) March 15 on NASA'sSTS-117 construction mission to International SpaceStation (ISS). Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer RickSturckow, Atlantis' STS-117astronauts will deliver two new starboard ISS solar arrays and retractan older solar wing during their planned 11-day mission.

Atlantis itself, as well as itspayload, are protected from weather by the shroud-like Rotating ServiceStructure at Pad 39A.

Hail damagehas prompted shuttle fuel tank repairs in the past.

NASApostponed its planned May 1999 launch of the shuttle Discovery's STS-96 missiondue to hail damage that etched 650 divots in the 15-story fuel tank's foaminsulation. The shuttle was rolled back to NASA's cavernous Vehicle Assembly Buildingfor repairs.

Woodpeckersdamaged Discovery's shuttle fuel tank in 1995 during the STS-70 mission, alsoprompting repairs.

NASA mustlaunch Atlantis during the March window or else wait until late April to allow theplanned 10-day ISS crew changebetween the station's Expedition14 and Expedition15 astronauts.

TheExpedition 15 crew is slatedto launch on April 7.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter.