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article imageSpace Shuttle Ready to Rock(et)

By Kyle Pallanik     May 15, 2007 in Technology
After going through more than two months of repairs on it's external fuel tank, damaged in an unexpected hail storm, the space shuttle Atlantis is back on the launch pad and looks to be ready to blast off on June 8th.
The effort to get the space shuttle ready in this amount of time is the interesting part about this story. After being pelted by hail, the size of golf balls, on February 26th, the fuel tank insulation was gouged with 4,200 dents. Engineers patched up most of the damage and invented a portable sanding tool, within a week, to speed up the repairs.
"It's a real success story, almost bordering on an Apollo 13-type story to develop that in such a short time" said John Chapman, who is the external tank project manager with NASA. "I promise you, it is absolutely ready to go"
Chapman's comparison refers to the improvisation and speedy work that engineers performed in 1970 to get the Apollo 13 moon expedition ready in time and also return the crew safely home, despite an oxygen tank explosion.
The fuel tank foam has been under close watch since the incident in 2003, when a piece of insulation flew off the space shuttle Columbia's fuel tank during the launch and damaged a heat shield on the left wing. The accident turned to tragedy when the orbiter reentered the Earth's atmosphere, in the blazing heat, the shuttle burst into flames, killing all 7 of its crew. It was a truly tragic end to NASA's first space worthy shuttle, the one that made history in 1981 with it's first launch.
In order to fix the fuel tank for the Atlantis, the team blended new foam onto some areas of the surface, poured insulation into other damaged parts and performed extensive work on the nose cap, removing large pieces of material and using spray techniques to fix those areas.
NASA launch director Michael Leinbach expressed his enthusiasm for the diligent work "I am just in awe of the team that's pulled this together...I will never forget the day of the storm. I was really wondering if we were going to fix this tank or not."
NASA shuttle program manager expressed his appreciation for the "outstanding effort on the part of hundreds and hundreds of people" who have pulled this together in enough time for the shuttle to be primed for launch.
The purpose of the trip on June 8th is another visit to the international space station with its STS-117 astronaut crew. The 11 day mission, which is the first of four flights this year, will be commanded by Rick Sturckow, a veteran pilot of the shuttle. The crew will deliver two new 17.5-ton truss segments and starboard solar arrays to the space station.
The solar arrays are important additions to the international laboratories being built by Europe, Japan and Russia.
Part of the missions profile is the swap of astronaut Clayton Anderson with flight engineer Sunita Williams, who will be finally making her return journey back to Earth after a record stay in orbit. While aboard the International Space Station she also performed space walks and ran the Boston Marathon.
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