NEW YORK — NASA engineers and mission managers are weighing their options on how best to fix thousands of hail dings in the foam-covered fuel tank of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said engineers remain hopeful that they can repair Atlantis’ fuel tank in time for a late April or early May launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But switching the damaged tank with a pristine one — which NASA has said would push the planned space shot to June — is not off the table, Gerstenmaier added.
“We’ve gotten a good look at all the damage on the tank,” William Gerstenmaier told a congressional subcommittee March 14. “They’re probably about 2,000 areas of hail damage on the tank that are going to need some evaluation.”
Hail battered Atlantis’ Pad 39A launch site at Kennedy in Cape Canaveral, Fl a., during a freak storm Feb. 26, leaving pockmarks in the vital foam insulation coating the orbiter’s 15-story external tank. The damage spurred NASA managers to delay the shuttle’s planned March 15 launch to late April at the earliest, and to roll the shuttle back into the agency’s Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs.
Atlantis is currently slated to launch between late April and May 21, with the next flight window opening around June 8, said Kyle Herring, a NASA spokesman at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA shuttle officials are expected to meet the week of March 19 to discuss the ongoing tank inspection and repair work, as well as layout a forward plan for Atlantis’ upco m ing spaceflight.
“The program is optimistic that we can still use this tank,” Herring said.
Not all of the 2,000 hail dings require an extensive repair, Gerstenmaier said. Some are acceptable for launch, while others may require simple sanding to smooth out the tiny divots gouged by hail, though tank engineers may have to pour new foam to fill in larger damage areas, he added.
“If it turns out the work is significant and it takes a lot of time, we may choose to use the next tank,” Gerstenmaier said. “If the work looks bounded and it’s understood, and we can make those repairs on the tank, then we’ll fly that tank.”
NASA’s STS-117 astronauts, commanded by veteran spaceflyer Rick Sturckow, plan to launch towards the international space station (ISS) aboard Atlantis to deliver a new pair of starboard solar arrays to the orbital laboratory. The mission is expected to be the first of up to five planned shuttle flights dedicated to ISS construction in 2007.