NASA managers on Friday approved moving Atlantis to the launch pad in hopes that a June launch will return the space shuttle program to a regular flight schedule after a six-month hiatus.
Technicians planned to haul Atlantis to the launch pad as soon as Tuesday if technicians can quickly remove the scaffolding that was used while thousands of dings from hail were repaired in the foam insulation on the shuttle’s external fuel tank.
Golfball-size hailstones damaged the insulation during a storm in February while the tank sat on the launch pad, forcing NASA to delay Atlantis’ launch from mid-March to no earlier than June 8.
“I promise you, it’s absolutely ready to go,” John Chapman, NASA’s manager of the external tank project, said Friday.
Atlantis has been in the Vehicle Assembly Building for the repairs. The technicians sprayed on new insulation foam in some areas, hand-poured foam on other areas and sanded down other foam so it blended in with surrounding areas.
A final decision on when to launch Atlantis will be made at the end of the month.
Astronaut Clayton Anderson has been added to the six-man shuttle crew so he can replace U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams on the international space station.
No space shuttle has flown since Discovery returned from a trip to the space station last December. The Atlantis crew will deliver a 17.5-ton addition to the station’s truss system and go on three spacewalks.
Foam debris coming off the external fuel tank is of special concern to NASA since the seven astronauts aboard Columbia perished when a piece of foam from the tank struck a wing during launch, allowing fiery gases to penetrate the spacecraft while returning to Earth.
During the delay, technicians also removed Atlantis’ three engines to check for tiny pieces of rubber in propellant lines that were found in Discovery last December. A minuscule piece of rubber was removed from a propellant line in Atlantis.