Spaceflight Now

Endeavour bolted to fuel tank and solid rocket boosters

Posted: March 2, 2011

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The shuttle Endeavour was securely fastened to its bullet-shaped external fuel tank Wednesday morning, two days after the ship left its hangar and rolled into the Vehicle Assembly Building in a major milestone before launch.

Endeavour was lifted from the Vehicle Assembly Building transfer aisle Tuesday morning. Credit: Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now
The 100-ton spaceship was hoisted into position near three attach points on the external tank Tuesday afternoon, several hours later than scheduled because of trouble connecting a specially-built yellow sling to the back of the shuttle.

The orbiter rolled into the 52-story assembly building Monday morning, and engineers initially planned to hook up the metal sling and lift Endeavour off a 76-wheel transporter by Monday evening. But workers ran into problems connecting the apparatus to the orbiter.

After removing the sling, replacing a part and hooking it up again, technicians were finally able to lift Endeavour from the transporter and rotate the orbiter vertical before sunrise Tuesday.

A heavy-duty crane raised the stubby-winged spaceship from the floor of the VAB around 11 a.m. EST Tuesday, reaching nearly the top of the voluminous structure before moving through an aperture into the building's northeast high bay.

The crane carefully lowered Endeavour next to its fuel tank and solid rocket boosters Tuesday afternoon. The tank and strap-on solid motors were already stacked on top of a mobile launch platform.

Spaceflight Now was inside the VAB and captured these spectacular images of the breath-taking lift operation.

Technicians methodically secured Endeavour to three attach points overnight, reaching a partially-mated position by 1:40 a.m. EST Wednesday. The space plane was firmly bolted to the external tank at 4:25 a.m. EST Wednesday, achieving a "hard mate" between the black and white orbiter and burnt orange fuel reservoir, a NASA spokesperson said.

Endeavour hangs above the external tank and solid rocket boosters that will help launch it into space. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
Endeavour is fitted to the tank at two attach points on the lower portion of the vehicle and a single bolting location near the shuttle's nose.

Workers are also connecting propellant plumbling lines, communications cables and electrical wiring between Endeavour, the external tank and the launch platform.

Endeavour's fuel tank, named External Tank No. 122, was restored to flight status after being damaged during Hurricane Katrina. The storm ripped the roof from the building housing the 154-foot-long tank, exposing the hardware to hazardous weather and falling debris.

Shuttle external tanks are built by Lockheed Martin Corp. at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

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

A shuttle interface test to check all the connections on the vehicle is planned for Friday.

Endeavour is being prepared to blast off April 19 on its 25th and final mission. The shuttle will carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $2 billion international astrophysics experiment, to the space station. Its payload bay will also be filled with spare parts and a logistics platform.

The shuttle is scheduled to roll out to launch pad 39A beginning around 8 p.m. EST March 9. Endeavour should reach the pad in the predawn hours March 10.

The schedule calls for the shuttle launch team to load cryogenic propellants into Endeavour's fuel tank March 22 in a crucial prelaunch test to check the integrity of the tank structure and foam insulation.

Endeavour's payload of spare parts and scientific gear will get to the launch pad March 24 and be installed in the shuttle's cargo bay March 28.

The shuttle's crew, commanded by Mark Kelly, will strap into Endeavour April 1 for a traditional countdown rehearsal.