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NASA Weighs Shuttle Fuel Tank Repair Options

NASA Weighs Shuttle Fuel Tank Repair Options
Work crews sand red dye from the surface of the hail-damaged external fuel tank of NASA's space shuttle Atlantis to help repair thousands of dings gouged into its foam insulation-covered surface. (Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossman.)

NASA engineers and mission managers areweighing their options on how best to fix thousandsof dings in the foam-covered fuel tank of the space shuttle Atlantis.

WilliamGerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, saidengineers remain hopeful that they can repair Atlantis' fuel tank in time for alate April or early May launch [image].But switching the damaged tank with a pristine one - which NASA has said wouldpush the planned space shot to June - is not off the table, Gerstenmaier added.

"We'vegotten a good look at all the damage on the tank," Gerstenmaier told acongressional subcommittee this week. "There're probably about 2,000 areas ofhail damage on the tank that are going to need some evaluation."

Hailbattered Atlantis' Pad 39A launch site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center inCape Canaveral, Florida during a freak storm on Feb. 26, leaving pockmarks inthe vital foam insulation coating the orbiter's 15-story external tank [image].The damage spurred NASA managers to delayAtlantis' planned March 15 launch to late April at the earliest, and rollthe shuttle back into the space agency's cavernous Vehicle Assembly Buildingfor repairs [image].

Atlantis iscurrently slated to launch between late April and May 21, with the next flightwindow opening around June 8, NASA spokesperson Kyle Herring, at Johnson SpaceCenter in Houston, told

NASA shuttleofficials are expected to meet next week to discuss the ongoing tank inspectionand repair work, as well as layout a forward plan for Atlantis' upcomingspaceflight.

"Theprogram is optimistic that we can still use this tank," Herring said.

Not all of thefuel tank's 2,000 hail dings require an extensive repair, Gerstenmaier said. Someare acceptable for launch while others may require simple sanding to smooth outthe tiny divots gouged by hail, though tank engineers may have to pour new foamto fill in larger damage areas, he added [image].

"If itturns out the work is significant and it takes a lot of time, we may choose touse the next tank," Gerstenmaier said. "If the work looks bounded and it'sunderstood, and we can make those repairs on the tank, then we'll fly thattank."

Shuttleworkers have also repaired minor, hail-related coating damage to more than 20of Atlantis' black heat-resistant belly tiles, NASA has said.

Atlantis isexpected to ferry NASA's six STS-117astronauts, commanded by veteranspaceflyer Rick Sturckow, to the International SpaceStation (ISS) on an 11-day flight to deliver a new pairof starboard solar arrays. The mission is expected to be the first of up tofive planned shuttle flights dedicated to ISS construction in 2007.

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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.