NASA Preparing For Return Flight To Space

NASA is gearing up to return the Shuttle to space next year. Workers at NASA's Michoud Assembly Plant in New Orleans East unveiled a new and improved Space Shuttle external fuel tank Thursday.

NASA determined a chunk of foam that came off is what caused the Columbia Shuttle disaster.

Michoud employees have made several changes to the tank in hopes of reducing the risks. Workers call it the back-bone of the Space Shuttle, the external fuel tank weighs 1.6 million pounds when full and travels 12 times the speed of a bullet after take-off.. Extreme speeds and temperatures aren't always fuel tank friendly.

"What we want is a more reliable system that can fly safely and to do that we had to reduce the risk," Lockheed Martin Public Information Officer Marion LaNasa said.

Michoud workers have spent the past 18-months redesigning the external fuel tank.. The one put on display at the plant will go up with the first Shuttle to return to flight next year.

"We specifically targeted certain areas that there was a risk for foam debris or ice debris and we went in those specific areas to reduce that risk," remarked LaNasa.

One of those areas is the place where the external tank is attached to the Shuttle, known as the Bi-Pod.. The piece of foam that punctured a hole in the wing of Columbia came off of that part of the tank.

"We included some heaters so that ice wouldn't form and we reduced the amount of foam insulation," LaNasa said.

Modifications were also made to the assembly of this part of the tank. That change assures workers they are evenly spraying foam in hard to reach areas.

"Reversing the bolt heads now makes it easier to spray underneath so it's quite an improvement and the sprayers are very excited about it," Hal Simoneaux of Lockheed Martin said.

Making sure the foam stays on the external tanks is the goal.

"We're very confident that the vehicle that flies again as early as March of next year is going to be the safest most reliable external tank that's ever flown," LaNasa said.

Another safety feature added to the external tank is a camera, so NASA can detect a problem on take off.

By: Al Showers