New External Tank Arrives in Florida

New External Tank Arrives in Florida
The new shuttle external tank being loaded onto a covered barge at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. (Image credit: Lockheed Martin.)

A new external tank arrived thismorning at Port Canaveral, positioning NASA managers for a decision that willdetermine whether shuttle Atlantis is slated to launch in May or June.

The 154-foot-long tank now is scheduled to fly with the orbiter Endeavour on anInternational Space Station assembly mission later this year.

But managers might decide during a meeting next Tuesday to use it to replaceshuttle Atlantis' tank, which sustained significantdamage during a Feb. 26 hail storm. The launch of Atlantis then would bedelayed until mid-June.

The other option would be to continue repairs to the damaged tank, a course ofaction that would enable NASA to try to launch Atlantis prior to a May 21deadline.

"That's certainly not out of the realm of possibility," said KyleHerring, a spokesman for NASA's JohnsonSpace Centerin Houston."The desire is to stay on that tank."

In any case, NASA managers have decided to remove Atlantis' three main enginesso engineers can inspect propellant lines within the orbiter. Four small piecesof silicon rubber recently were found in lines on Discovery, and managers wantto make certain there are no contaminants in Atlantis' lines.

NASA uses the silicon material before and after flights to make impressions ofany small blemishes or cracks within the propellant lines. Engineers then candetermine whether any minor defect enlarges.

Debris in a propellant line could degrade engine performance or, in a worstcase, lead to a catastrophic failure in flight.

The new tank arrived at Port Canaveral after a850-mile trip from the MichoudAssembly Facility in New Orleans.

Mounted on a wheeled transport platform, the tank was rolled onto the225-foot-long barge from a test and assembly facility last Sunday. The bargedeparted the factory the next day under tow from the NASA Solid Rocket Boosterretrieval ship Freedom Star.

The trip took the ship and the barge down the Mississippi River Delta, out intothe Gulf of Mexico and then around the southern tip of Florida. With the barge trailing about aquarter-mile behind it, the ship then hugged the east coast of Florida, entered the locks at Port Canaveral and made itsway up the Banana River toward the turn basin just east of the Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building.

NASA had planned to launch Atlantis and six astronauts on March 15, but its tank was peppered with hail the size of golf balls during a brief-but-violent thunderstorm. The agency is facing a May 21 deadline to get the shuttle off the ground.

Atlantis can't launch between that date and June 8 because sun angles will be such that the station's solar wings would not be able to generate enough electricity to support joint operations with a visiting shuttle.

A switch to the new tank would delay launch until around June 16 or June 17.

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Aerospace Journalist

Todd Halvoron is a veteran aerospace journalist based in Titusville, Florida who covered NASA and the U.S. space program for 27 years with Florida Today. His coverage for Florida Today also appeared in USA Today, and 80 other newspapers across the United States. Todd earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, journalism and fiction from the University of Cincinnati and also served as Florida Today's Kennedy Space Center Bureau Chief during his tenure at Florida Today. Halvorson has been an independent aerospace journalist since 2013.