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Discovery Fuel Tank. Pic: Lockheed Martin

The beleaguered NASA shuttle programme has received a boost today as a spruced up fuel tank arrived at Kennedy Space Centre by sea from New Orleans. Engineers are now buoyant about prospects.

Barring further trouble, the space agency plans to get Discovery orbit-bound by the end of May. In a press conference on Tuesday, programme manager Wayne Hale told reporters: "There remains a lot of work to be done. We won't proceed until we've done the work to prove that it's safe to fly."

He added: "I remain optimistic that if we fly this summer, we'll be able to get three flights off this calendar year." The development of the International Space Station has been slowed dramatically by the shuttle's woes.

NASA has reportedly spent over $1bn sorting out issues with the 47m long external fuel tank. Wind tunnel testing is next on the engineering roster for the changes.

The tank has been extensively redesigned since last year's solitary launch saw the recurrence of a foam-shedding problem and a nail-biting re-entry. That version of the tank had itself seen major upgrades since foam-shedding caused the 2003 Columbia disaster when the entire crew was killed on entering the Earth's atmosphere.

The shuttle fleet is due to be mothballed in 2010. ®

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