External tank for February shuttle flight arrives at KSC

External tank No. 122, the last tank to be delivered to the Kennedy Space
Center, is rolled off its transport barge Tuesday.
(Photo: CBS News/William Harwood)
External tank No. 122, damaged by Hurricane Katrina, refurbished and slated for use by the shuttle Endeavour in February on what is currently the final planned space shuttle mission, was offloaded from its transport barge at the Kennedy Space Center Tuesday and moved into the Vehicle Assembly Building for processing.

"It's kind of a sentimental day," said Alicia Mendoza, tank and booster vehicle manager at Kennedy. "We're excited to have the tank here and offloaded. It's always such a quick process and gets everybody's adrenaline going. And, at the same, it's kind of sad because it is the last tank.

"It kind of brings home reality that it is the last tank that we will be receiving here at KSC for the shuttle program," she said. "So almost kind of nostalgic. We're not going to really see this again."

The milestone came just three days before more than 1,100 Florida shuttle workers faced layoffs Friday, part of NASA's ongoing push to retire the shuttle program after two, or possibly three, more flights.

As it now stands, only two missions are officially planned. Discovery is scheduled for launch Nov. 1 on a space station resupply mission and Endeavour is targeted for takeoff Feb. 26 to deliver a $2 billion particle physics experiment to the lab complex.

But NASA's fiscal 2011 budget, under debate in Washington, may include funding for a final flight by shuttle Atlantis next June to deliver one last load of supplies and equipment.

NASA already was processing Atlantis for launch on a possible emergency rescue mission in case of a problem that might strand Endeavour's crew in orbit. Four astronauts were named earlier this month to fly the launch-on-need mission, if necessary. If not, NASA wants to turn that mission into an actual flight, relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to provide rescue service if Atlantis suffers a major problem that might prevent a safe re-entry.

The solid-fuel boosters needed for the launch-on-need flight were delivered in May and external tank No. 138 was shipped to Florida in July.

At that time, NASA managers intended to launch Endeavour with ET-138 and to use ET-122 with Atlantis. But earlier this month, managers decided to swap tanks, assigning the Katrina-damaged ET-122 to Endeavour and ET-138 to Atlantis.

ET-122 was undergoing post-Columbia processing at Lockheed Martin's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ripped open the roof above the tank's vertical processing cell. Concrete panels fell into the processing bay, damaging the foam insulation on the upper part of the external tank. But an inspection revealed no structural damage.

In 2008, NASA decided to repair the tank and a team of about workers stripped off and replaced damaged foam. Most of the damage was found on the left side of the tank in the quadrant opposite where the shuttle attaches.

Repaired areas are a lighter color than the surrounding foam insulation and are visible in photographs of ET-122's arrival at the Kennedy Space Center (see below).

Photos: CBS News/William Harwood