Space shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour, the next two planned to fly, may have technical problems with their external fuel tanks. Both spacecraft are due to roll out to launch pads at the Kennedy Space Centre.
NASA has just rescheduled roll-out of Atlantis to Kennedy's Launch Complex 39A, moving the event back from August 30th to September 2nd. The shuttle is scheduled to launch on October 8th on the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Meanwhile Endeavour will initially be positioned at pad 39B, ready to act as rescue craft in the event of a problem during the Hubble mission. (The Atlantis astronauts at the telescope won't be able to take refuge in the International Space Station; hence the desire for a ready backup shuttle.)
Assuming that all goes well on the Hubble visit, Endeavour will lift off on November 10 to deliver a logistics module to the space station.
According to an article in Aerospace Daily & Defence Report, however, both shuttles have had issues with their recently-fitted external fuel tanks. A bolt used to secure Atlantis's tank to handling gear as it was mated with the orbiter was apparently difficult to extract, raising concerns about damage to the bolt hole.
Meanwhile, as Endeavour's tank was being raised to the vertical, it seems that several people nearby heard something rattling about inside it. Anything loose inside the tank could be sucked into the orbiter's engines during boost, probably causing a catastrophic explosion. Aerospace Daily & Defence Report says that NASA technicians are X-raying the tank to see what, if anything, is in there - and whether or not it's of a size that the shuttle's filter systems could cope with.
The factory where the huge orange external tanks are made, at Michoud near New Orleans, is scheduled to close down starting from this autumn, with massive loss of jobs. Under current NASA plans the Shuttle fleet is due to retire from 2010, and will need no further tanks after this year. ®
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