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To Swap or Not? NASA Reviews Fuel Tank Repair Plan for Next Shuttle Launch

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.)

NASA shuttlemanagers and engineers will meet today to discuss whether to press ahead withrepairs to the Atlantis orbiter's hail-damaged tank for the agency's nextmission or replace the dinged vessel with a pristine replacement.

Engineershave been working to repair a myriad of divots and dings etched into to thevital foam insulation covering Atlantis' 15-story external tank during a freakFeb. 26 hail storm over its Florida launchpad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The resulting damage delayed theshuttle's planned 11-day STS-117 construction flight to the International SpaceStation(ISS) until mid-May at the earliest pending successful repairs.

Replacingthe external tank would push the spaceflight to June, NASA officials have said.

Last month,top NASA shuttlemanagers set April 10 as their deadline to decide whether to press aheadwith Atlantis' fuel tank repairs or shift to a new tank altogether. Anewshuttle fuel tank -- currently reserved to feed the launch of NASA's Endeavourorbiter during its STS-118 mission later this year -- arrived at KSC last week

"It'sstrictly a status report on the progress of the repairs," NASA spokespersonKyle Herring told Monday of today's shuttle meeting.

Shuttlemission managers are expected to discuss today's meeting during a press briefingslated for no earlier than 6:00 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT).

Meanwhile,NASA engineers are working to removeAtlantis' three main engines and inspect propellant lines to make surecarry no contamination after four small pieces of silicon rubber were found insimilar locations aboard the shuttle Discovery.

Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Rick Sturckow, Atlantis' six-astronaut STS-117 crewwill deliver two new massive trusses and solar arrays to the space station'sstarboard side.

NASA'scurrent window to launch the mission closes on May 21 due to unfavorable Sunangles on the space station's solar arrays, and reopens on June 8

  • STS-117 Power Play: Atlantis Shuttle Crew to Deliver ISS Solar Wings
  • IMAGES: The Spacewalks of NASA's STS-116 Mission
  • Complete Shuttle Mission Coverage
  • All About the Space Shuttle

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq 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. 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 Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.