The race to prepare Atlantis rescue tank

by Chris Bergin

While 93 Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF)/Lockheed workers continue to work around the clock to finish work on External Tank ET-118 at the Kennedy Space Center, the battle to ensure the tank was shipped to Florida on time involved volunteers being called in from the most unlikely of departments.

ET-118 is required to be ready for Atlantis’ STS-300 LON (Launch On Need) rescue mission, in case Discovery can’t return home with the STS-121 crew.

Following a call for ‘all hands’ to attend to the mission of getting ET-118 out of the door at the New Orleans facility, Lockheed Martin even employed the services of mail clerks and auditors to attempt to bring down the timeline.

‘To deliver a tank, you’ve got to essentially do two things – you’ve got to get the hardware complete and you also have to get the paper complete,’ said Mark Bryant, deputy ET project manager, to Lockheed’s internal ‘Mission Success’ bulletin. ‘And the paper completion is just as important as the hardware.

‘We’re not looking for people to pick up a wrench or a spray gun and work on the tank. Where we needed their support primarily is in closing paper.

‘With emphasis on supporting the customer’s manifest, continuing Katrina effects, the IFA (In-Flight Anomaly investigation on STS-114 foam loss) and engineering test articles, (we had) fallen behind a little bit.’

While the tank was sent incomplete, with several closeout jobs – and the major month-long process of changing out the ECO (Engine Cut Off) sensors – now being completed inside the Vehicle Assembly Facility (VAB) at KSC, the tank needed to reach a stage of manufacturing inside Building 420 to satisfy their customer, NASA. That involved people from all around the facility to chip in.

‘I review the Manufacturing Process Plans looking for issues that need to be resolved to facilitate closure of the paperwork,’ said David Lander, a technical auditor, who answered the all hands call. ‘We look at stamp and date legibility and make sure recorded data is accurate. We also review the redline entries for clarity. In general, we look for things that do not quite look right or make sense, and we flag them so that the issues can be worked.

‘I saw this as an opportunity to directly support the delivery of ET-118 by helping to ensure that the paperwork is as clear and clean as possible, and that there are no issues that could impede the closure process.’

‘Return to Flight is what this is all about,’ Lander added, praising the team for ensuring the tank wasn’t delayed further. ‘I have done this previously, and I’ve seen how much work is involved in completing the ET. Everyone out here is dedicated to completing ET shipments to KSC.’

Mail clerk William Wilson was helping out in Building 420. ‘I review files to make sure that people with the right certs have signed off from production, quality, and safety.’



Because workers are swarming all over the tank, other volunteers have been assigned roles as mat and platform monitors, noted the Bulletin. ‘To be a monitor, one must take the Thermal Protection Systems Awareness course. This shows employees how to carefully walk on the tank and where to stand without damaging the foam. The employee monitors people on the tank and on the platform scaffolding where employee numbers are limited.’

‘If I can get a volunteer to be a mat or platform monitor, that frees up a certified Quality Control inspector to get down on the tank,’ Bryant added ‘They’re real eager. I look at it as a real good opportunity for people to get acquainted with the hardware.’

The shipping of ET-118 hasn’t relaxed the posture of MAF, with work now focusing on ET-123, set to fly with Discovery’s second mission of the 17 flight manifest on STS-116. ET-123 is currently in Cell A at MAF, with ET-124 to follow. ET-117 has also arrived back from KSC for modifications on its PAL ramp, Ice/Frost ramps and bipod foam ramps.

‘Our plate is filling up,’ Bryant added.

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