CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA plansto fill shuttle Discovery's redesigned external tank at Kennedy Space Centertoday in a test crucial to the agency's plans to launch its first post-Columbiashuttle mission next month.
With the fully assembledshuttle perched on Launch Pad 39B, engineers expect to pump 526,000 gallons of supercold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into thebullet-shaped fuel tank.
The test then calls for aneight-member inspection team to head out to the pad to try to spot any buildupof ice that might break free from the tank during launch and damage theshuttle. The test is aimed primarily at checking changes made to the 15-storytank after the 2003 Columbiaaccident.
But it also will giveNASA's shuttle launch team a chance to carry out a fuel-loading operation forthe first time since the disaster.
"A very importantobjective . . . is to run through the process of tanking, which we haven't donenow for two years, and to make sure all the ground equipment -- all theplumbing -- works well," said NASA deputy shuttle program manager WayneHale.
"We're going to makesure we have all of that thoroughly wrung out, and that it's all going to work,before we try to launch. We don't want to have surprises on launch day."
Columbia was lost and its crew died after awedge-shaped piece of foam insulation broke free from the shuttle tank andblasted a hole in the ship's left wing. The breach allowed hot gas to rip theship apart during atmospheric re-entry.
The custom-crafted foamwedge was designed to keep ice from building up on metal struts that connectthe tank with the nose of the shuttle orbiter. NASA replaced the foam withheaters. The test will allow engineers to see whether they work properly.
"We've got a whole newset of thermostats and electrical circuits that apply power to those heaters,and that's all got to be checked out," Hale said.
The test is considered akey milestone in NASA's bid to return its shuttle fleet to service. If all goeswell, then only standard prep work would need to be completed before launch.
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