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/

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, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. 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 covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. 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. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.