NASA managers praise tank repair effort – clarify flight schedule

by Chris Bergin

As NASA managers head towards the April 10th decision on which External Tank Atlantis will fly with on STS-117, the ongoing ET repair effort has received heaps of praise from both Shuttle manager Wayne Hale and Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations.

Gerstenmaier also noted the changes to the upcoming launch schedule will be clarified around the same time as the tank decision, although that meeting has been deferred until April 16.

**The most comprehensive collection of STS-117 onwards related presentions and mission documentation are available to download on L2 **

**LIVE news updates on Atlantis STS-117 PAD Flow**

**LIVE news updates on Endeavour STS-118 (LON-318) Processing**

**LIVE news updates on Discovery STS-122 (LON-322) Processing**

Related documentation on L2: Major STS Flight Schedule Changes (New FAWGs) – March 27 – NASA White Paper on Manifest Changes – March 27 – Shuttle Flight Preparation Status Charts to STS-124 – March 27. ET Repair Documentation – from start of, to end of, March.

**Previous articles related to the ET damage events: Article 1Article 2 – Article 3 – Article 4 – Article 5 – Article 6 – Article 7 – Article 8 – Article 9 – Article 10Article 11** Click for more screenshots of the damage.

The amount of resources being concentrated on United Space Alliance and Lockheed Martin efforts to repair ET-124 back to flight status is epitomized by the huge amounts of daily assessment documentation, as engineers continue with the option of trying to save the tank from having to be shipped back to the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF).

Those efforts were praised by Gerstenmaier, when he was asked for a status update by Senator Bill Nelson at Wednesday’s ‘Transitioning to a Next Generation Human Space Flight System’ hearing at the US Senate.

‘This is one of the best activities I’ve ever seen in the human spaceflight area,’ he noted. ‘We have Lockheed Martin – who manufactures the tank for us, and the United Space Alliance – who do the processing at the Cape. Those two contactor organizations are working together better than I’ve seen two contactor organizations work.

‘The teaming, the spirit, and the cooperation of the folks working on this tank is phenomenal. They are passing engineering data back and forth, they are making progress every day on repairing the tank and they are doing just a great job. They are actually mocking up the spray area in New Orleans, so that technicians can practise what they’ll be doing back in Florida to finish up and complete.’

Those mock tests at MAF relate to the ‘non standard’ repair areas of the tank, ensuring the processes and techniques are mapped out for the technicians inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The ability to successfully repair those areas of the tank is one of the key factors on whether ET-124 will fly with Atlantis on STS-117.

Also adding to the positive progression with repairs, Wayne Hale made a point of praising the repair effort, noting he was ‘extremely pleased with the hard work’ from all those involved, while emphasising that the ultimate aim is ensuring STS-117 is returned to the status of being safe to fly, but only when that point has been reached. An obvious statement, but one that once again makes the point that the media generated phrase of ‘schedule pressure’ will not determine launch dates.

‘Our goal is to provide a good, flyable vehicle. We want to ensure it is safe, and we will fly it when it is ready,’ said Hale. ‘We would all like to see it fly as early as is practical, but our number one goal is to ensure it is safe when it flies.’

While the process of assessment and medium level repairs have proceeded without any major problem being noted, the decision on whether to stick with ET-124, or demate and re-stack with the soon-to-arrive ET-117, is still in the balance.

‘We still don’t know which tank we’ll use for STS-117,’ added Gerst. ‘If we need to, we can switch the tanks – with the new tank due to ship from New Orleans either on Sunday or Monday. It will be in Florida several days earlier than planned – the Lockheed team have done a great job.

**Ride home through the fire and plasma of re-entry with Atlantis on STS-115 – And now also with Discovery on STS-116 – TWO Stunning high quality 2hr, 355mb videos – from deorbit burn to post landing**

When Atlantis flies won’t be known for a few weeks, with the ultimate decision on STS-117’s launch target relating to if ET-124 can be repaired to the point of safe flight – which would possibly allow for a mid-May launch, or if NASA decides to swap with ET-124 – which would push STS-117 into June.

‘We’ll make a decision around April 10 on which tank we’ll use. We can potentially still make the May launch window, if we use this tank. If we don’t, we’ll be in the June timeframe. Each one of those launch window allows us to fly out the rest of the schedule for Space Station assembly.

‘It turns out by the end of 2008, first part of 2009 that the ripple of this delay will have rippled out and we’ll be back on track again. So we will still have the same margin we have today, we don’t see this as a big impact downstream. Progress is going well and it’s a tribute to this workforce. They understand the work that needs to be done.’

The fallout from the delay to STS-117 will change the NET (No Earlier Than) launch dates for a number of flights during 2007 and 2008, although this won’t place any undue pressure on the 2010 retirement date for the shuttle.

‘There will be some slippage through the rest of 2007, and a little bit into 2008. By the end of 2008, early 2009, that slippage will have pretty much of damped out,’ added Gerst. ‘You’ll see the flights move around a little bit, and we have a manifest option out there now that moves a whole bunch of flights around.’

That manifest option, as revealed by this site, is – as always stated – a fluid schedule that is used for processing and planning purposes, rather than setting actual launch dates in stone. However, it should also be noted, that historically, such manifests tend to be the most accurate schedule documentation.

‘That’s just a planning manifest,’ Gerst noted to Senator Nelson. ‘So if you see that on a website somewhere that somebody has posted it looks like everything in the world has moved. It really hasn’t, this is a planning exercise that we’ve put out to the team to look at to try and find an optimum way…to deal with this complicated assembly sequence, because it not only relies on the shuttle being ready to fly, but we need to see what activities need to be completed on board the space station.

‘Sometimes the Space Station activities pace the shuttle flight, so in some cases the shuttle might be ready to fly before the space station is ready to receive it, so it’s a pretty integrated schedule that’s more complicated that we’ve had in the past.

‘So we put this planning manifest out for the folks to look at. It (gives the appearance) that we’ve more unstable that we really are, but the truth is it’s just a planning manifest, and we’ll have around April 10th or so a plan laid out for the rest of the year.’

Further articles will follow. Please refer to the live update pages on L2 (for NASA presentations, memos, emails and images) and on Atlantis’ section (open to all).

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