Atom Wave: The Missing Tanks

Atom Wave

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Missing Tanks

I come to you today with a story about a tank. I know what you are thinking. I’m busy; I don’t need to be distracted by a story about a tank! What sort of poser writes a story about a tank? Get off the Internet! We don’t need you anymore!

While this is not your ordinary tank. I am referring to one of the marvels of semi-modern aerospace engineering, the space shuttle external tank. The tank alone stands over 153 feet tall and weighs over 1.6 million pounds fully fueled; and NASA has expended the last one in its inventory with STS-123. Now the external tank is still in production, the STS-123 tank was old stock left over from before the 2003 Columbia crash. The new “in-line” production model featuring all the new post-Columbia improvements are coming, but will be delayed.



Already sneaking up on NASA is the scheduled August mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-125 to rebuild the Hubble Space Telescope, and they need two fresh tanks for the job. One for the shuttle flight and the other to brew beer for the celebration after word. Honestly, ever since the fall of Columbia NASA has been hedging their risks by keeping another shuttle in reserve just in case something unpleasant occurred to the heat shield of the shuttle in orbit. It’s a good idea in theory, but it works lousy in practice. It assumes that in the immensely difficult process of turning a shuttle around, that one will always be flight ready by the time the next one is ready for liftoff. The missing tank could push back the STS-125 mission to October or later.

These missing tanks aren’t just a hassle to the shuttle program; they call into question the credibility of NASA and their promise to finish the space station by 2010 and with it the shuttle program. If they can’t maintain a supply line of a critical product like this, than you might as well forget about the other projects.

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