CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle and its newly repaired hail-damaged fuel tank are ready to return to the launch pad for a June 8 launch, NASA managers said on Friday, even though the tank is a bit of an eyesore.
Instead of being a uniform orange color, Atlantis’s tank now has a patchwork of white spots where technicians sprayed, scraped and filled fresh foam into more than 4,200 areas that were damaged during a freak hail storm in February.
“I want to prepare all of you for what this tank is going to look like when we roll it out,” fuel tank manager John Chapman told reporters on a teleconference call. “It’s going to look pretty speckly.”
The shuttle had been due to take off on a mission to the International Space Station in March when the storm blew through and showered the shuttle and its tank with hail as they perched on their seaside launch pad in Florida.
The repair work cost NASA about three months time in its race to finish building the space station by the time the shuttle fleet is due to retire in 2010.
NASA has been particularly sensitive to issues involving the fuel tanks since the deadly 2003 Columbia accident. The shuttle was lost and seven crewmembers killed as it was returning to Earth when superheated atmospheric gases ate into a hole in the wing that had been caused by foam falling off the tank at launch.
The tank’s deep orange color is caused by ultraviolet light from the sun striking the foam insulation over time. The fresh foam on Atlantis’ tank is light-colored, some of it bright white and some off-white depending on what repair technique was used in a particular area.
“There’s not at all a problem with this,” Chapman said.
“We have total confidence in the integrity of the repairs but I’m telling you right now that your mind will have a hard time convincing your eyes.”
Atlantis and a newly expanded crew of seven will be carrying a new set of solar power-producing wings for the space station. The extra crewmember, Clay Anderson, will be replacing station flight engineer Sunita Williams, who will return home aboard Atlantis.
The space station, a $100 billion project of 16 international partners, is about half finished. The shuttles are the only vehicles capable of hauling and assembling the outpost.