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Atlantis Launch Date Still Open As Tank Repairs Continue

By | April 2, 2007

      Repairs are continuing on the hail-damaged Space Shuttle Atlantis external fuel tank, with some parts of the tank in good shape while others still are being evaluated for repairs, according to William Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations.

      Gerstenmaier was asked by Space & Missile Defense Report just where work on the damaged shuttle stands.

      He said a new external fuel tank is now arriving in Florida, in case the tank now attached to Atlantis can’t be repaired in a reasonable period.

      Thus far, substantial work has been completed on the old tank.

      “We have completed the hydrogen tank” checkout, he said. “It’s complete, and it’s ready to go fly.” Because the hydrogen unit is the lower portion of the complete tank, it didn’t take the brunt of the hail that hammered down during a thunderstorm at Kennedy Space Center.

      As well, “we’re working on the oxygen portion of the tank,” he said. In one area, “we’ll have maybe 500 or so repairs, maybe more in that area. But those seem to fit in the schedule” for getting Atlantis off the ground.

      However, “at the very top, by the nose cap” of the fuel tank, “we remove the foam [insulation]. We’re now validating” and examining just what repairs are required, and technicians may “spray on some other foam and then trim it off,” he said.

      “Those tests will be complete” within about a week, and “if they prove satisfactory, then we have a nice repair that fixes a large area of the tank,” in a process that would be “fairly straightforward.”

      Asked whether that would mean NASA wouldn’t have to switch out the old tank for the new one, Gerstenmaier said, “we’re prepared either way. We can switch the tank if we need to.”

      At this point, he said, he doesn’t want to commit NASA to choosing one option or the other.

      Rather, “I want to let the workforce and the engineering team sort through it, let the work drive where the launch date ends up.”

      That, he said, is preferable to picking an arbitrary launch date, and then attempting to cram in hasty work to fit the liftoff schedule. “Don’t pick a launch date and then try to fit the work into that … date,” he said. “I think it’s much better if we let them do the work and see how it comes together.”

      Also last week, in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee space subcommittee, Gerstenmaier said he hopes a decision on whether or not to swap out the external fuel tank can be made around April 10, leading to a launch sometime in May or June.

      Finding Funds For NASA

      During a hearing of the subcommittee, Gerstenmaier and other witnesses including industry and labor representatives explained the current course of the Constellation Program to replace Atlantis and the other shuttles with a new type of spacecraft for low-Earth orbit, lunar and Mars missions.

      Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the subcommittee chairman, was the only member to show up for the session.

      He said other senators must be persuaded that NASA funding is a critical priority.

      Speaking to the witnesses, he said that ranking Republican member Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas “and I can’t do this all by ourselves,” urging the witnesses to talk to other senators and build support for NASA funding.

      “Do that personally,” he urged. “This is a pretty important deal for the future of the … space program.”

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