With the current shuttle mission going so well, this news is a little depressing. Future space shuttle missions may be delayed because a backlog of work is developing on external fuel tanks for the shuttles. The tank used by Endeavour for the current mission was the last in the inventory of ET’s built before the 2003 Columbia disaster. The next shuttle flight, scheduled for late May, will use the first of the new design of tanks that include improvements to help eliminate foam shedding. But production issues with subsequent tanks may force delays for future missions, including Atlantis’ STS-125 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, currently targeted for August 28. If the delays amount to more than a couple of months, itâ€™s possible the Hubble could give out before the shuttle could get there because of failing batteries and gyroscopes.
Since for the Hubble mission, the shuttle wouldnâ€™t be going to the International Space Station, there would be no safe haven option for Atlantis’ crew if major heat shield damage occurs. The station and Hubble are in different orbits and the shuttle does not have the ability to move from one to the other. As a result, NASA approved plans to have a second shuttle, Endeavour, ready for launch on a rescue mission just in case.
That means NASA needs two ready-to-fly external tanks for the Hubble mission. One should be ready, no problem, but the second one is the issue. Manpower and production issues are the main problems. The people at Michoud had to redo much of the work on existing fuel tanks, and then they took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some workers moved elsewhere, and the program has not been at peak production since. Additional unplanned work has also caused delays, such as the upgrade to the fuel sensors that plagued the last shuttle tank, used for the STS-122 mission.
For now, the Hubble mission remains officially scheduled for August 28, but some sources say the mission could be delayed to October. More on this as the picture becomes clearer and the story develops.
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Original News Source: CBS News Space Place