Spaceflight Now

Reborn after Katrina, shuttle fuel tank leaves factory

Posted: September 22, 2010

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An external fuel tank damaged by Hurricane Katrina left a New Orleans factory Tuesday on a 900-mile barge trip to the Kennedy Space Center, where it will be bolted to the shuttle Endeavour for the program's final scheduled launch.

ET-122 rolls out at Michoud, showing evidence of repairs after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The bullet-shaped tank, covered in orange insulating foam, was wheeled from a test and checkout hall Monday to the port at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

The tank's foam is pockmarked with light-colored spots, evidence of extensive repairs required to make the hardware flight-worthy again after becoming a victim of Hurricane Katrina when it ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Workers loaded the 154-foot-long tank inside the Pegasus barge, which departed Michoud at about 6 p.m. local time Tuesday, according to Harry Wadsworth, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson.

After traversing the Gulf of Mexico and rounding the southern tip of Florida, the barge is expected at the shuttle launch site by Sunday. The tank will be towed into the Vehicle Assembly Building, inspected and checked out, then placed between Endeavour's solid rocket boosters in mid-November.

Named ET-122, the tank was restored to flight status after being damaged during Hurricane Katrina. The storm ripped the roof from the building housing the tank, exposing the hardware to hazardous weather and falling debris.

ET-122 is the last tank to leave Michoud, which manufactured every shuttle fuel tank and the first stages of NASA's Saturn 5 moon rockets. Lockheed Martin is the top contractor for the external tank.

The external tank holds about a half-million gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants feeding the shuttle's three main engines during launch.

There was no departure ceremony this week like the jazz band parade sendoff for the second-to-last tank to roll out of Michoud, but NASA space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier was present to speak with employees and thank them for their work, Wadsworth said.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, speaks with Michoud employees at the rollout of ET-122. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The previous tank, numbered ET-138, left the facility July 8 with an event attended by Lockheed Martin and NASA brass, plus state and local politicians. It arrived in Florida five days later.

ET-138 was then expected to be paired with Endeavour for the February launch, but with NASA and Congress still weighing the addition of an extra shuttle flight, officials assigned the tank to a potential rescue mission next summer.

NASA has enough shuttle parts, including a tank and set of solid rocket boosters, to mount a "launch-on-need" flight to bring home Endeavour's crew should a serious problem strand the astronauts on the International Space Station.

If Endeavour's flight goes smoothly, NASA could launch Atlantis and the rescue shuttle stack anyway on a station resupply mission.

The rationale for the switch is to launch the newest and most pristine tank on the final shuttle flight, when there will not be a rescue mission on standby.

Endeavour is scheduled to blast off Feb. 26 with spare parts and a $2 billion particle physics experiment for the space station.