Program prepares for Shuttle update

by Chris Bergin

NASA officials will announce the current status of preparations to re-start Shuttle missions next week – following meetings to ascertain progress on key elements required ahead of STS-121 in May, 2006.

Managers and engineers have been meeting over the last three days at a summit, with the results of their consultations to be made public at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) next Tuesday.

Three External Tanks (ETs) are currently being modified and prepared for delivery to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as NASA aims to launch up to four missions next year.
However, bring all the components that make up the Space Transportation System (STS) is by no means an easy process, one of the main reasons NASA decided not make public the current NET (No Earlier Than) launch dates – May 3 for STS-121, July 1 for STS-115 – currently being used for internal processing
‘In response to friends outside the agency who don’t really understand the process, I tell them it is similar to buying a new car that has yet to be built and expecting the manufacturer to tell you a specific delivery date,’ explained Kyle Herring of NASA PA at JSC. 
‘Let’s say the car’s fuel tank is being supplied from a different subcontractor and has a minor design problem causing it to be slightly redesigned.  In the meantime, your car’s other parts are all ready to go and will meet that delivery date, so the dealer tells you to expect delivery on May 3.
‘In the meantime, the fuel tank work is uncertain because the manufacturer can’t just build the tank without doing some amount of testing to ensure it’s a quality product and safe for use. 
‘So, all the other products are being delivered, processed and installed, but the fuel tank may, or may not make the scheduled delivery date because the subcontractor is doing some work that is new.
‘If all goes well, it certainly could meet the schedule in parallel with the ongoing testing to validate the slight changes.  If that happens, your car is delivered on time.’
NASA is expected to announce that the May, 2006 continues to remain hopeful – although the closer they get to rolling over Discovery to the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building), the closer they will get to officially announcing a target launch date.
‘More than likely, a dealership will tell you that your car will be ready some time within a certain window (say May 3 – 23) rather than a specific date,’ added Herring. 
‘Now, the closer it gets to that time, the smarter the dealership will be, because the assembly is that much further along and many of the uncertainties associated with the newly designed fuel tank have been addressed or tested.
‘That’s where we are with STS-121.  The external tank is undergoing some slight modifications associated with the Protuberance Air Load ramp and bipod fitting foam closeout and is expected to be delivered in early February.  But the testing to validate those changes is ongoing and won’t be completed until mid December (or so). 
‘Based on that, there is no need to select a launch date other than internally to allow all the other work to proceed in anticipation of the tank delivery.’

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