NTRS - NASA Technical Reports Server

Back to Results
External Tank Program - Legacy of SuccessThe largest single element of Space Shuttle is the External Tank (ET), which serves as the structural backbone of the vehicle during ascent and provides liquid propellants to the Orbiter s three Main Engines. The ET absorbs most of the seven million pounds of thrust exerted by the Solid Rocket Boosters and Main Engines. The design evolved through several block changes, reducing weight each time. Because the tank flies to orbital velocity with the Space Shuttle Orbiter, minimization of weight is mandatory, to maximize payload performance. The initial configuration, the standard weight tank, weighed 76,000 pounds and was an aluminum 2219 structure. The light weight tank weighed 66,000 pounds and flew 86 missions. The super light weight tank weighed 58,500 pounds and was primarily an aluminum-lithium structure. The final configuration and low weight enabled system level performance sufficient for assembly of the International Space Station in a high inclination orbit, vital for international cooperation. Another significant challenge was the minimization of ice formation on the cryogenic tanks. This was essential due to the system configuration and the choice of ceramic thermal protection system materials on the Orbiter. Ice would have been a major debris hazard. Spray on foam insulation materials served multiple functions including thermal insulation, conditioning of cryogenic propellants, and thermal protection for the tank structure during ascent and entry. The tank is large, and unique manufacturing facilities, tooling, and handling, and transportation operations were developed. Weld processes and tooling evolved with the design as it matured through several block changes. Non Destructive Evaluation methods were used to assure integrity of welds and thermal protection system materials. The aluminum-lithium alloy was used near the end of the program and weld processes and weld repair techniques had to be refined. Development and implementation of friction stir welding was a substantial technology development incorporated during the Program. Automated thermal protection system application processes were developed for the majority of the tank surface. Material obsolescence was an issue throughout the multi-decade program. Process controls were implemented to assure cleanliness in the production environment, to control contaminants, and to preclude corrosion. Each tank was accepted via rigorous inspections, including non-destructive evaluation techniques, proof testing, and all systems testing. In the post STS-107 era, the project focused on ascent debris risk reduction. This was accomplished via stringent process controls, post flight assessment using substantially improved imagery, and selective redesigns. These efforts were supported with a number of test programs to simulate combined environments. The debris risk was reduced by two orders of magnitude. During this time a major natural disaster was overcome when hurricane Katrina damaged the manufacturing facility. Numerous lessons from these efforts, the manufacturing and material processing issues, the key design features, and evolution of the design will be discussed.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Marshall Space Flight Center
Document Type
Conference Paper
Pilet, Jeffery C.
(Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. New Orleans, LA, United States)
Diecidue-Conners, Dawn
(Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. New Orleans, LA, United States)
Worden, Michelle
(Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. New Orleans, LA, United States)
Guillot, Michelle
(Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. New Orleans, LA, United States)
Welzyn, Kenneth
(NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Date Acquired
August 25, 2013
Publication Date
September 27, 2011
Subject Category
Launch Vehicles And Launch Operations
Report/Patent Number
Meeting Information
Meeting: AIAA Space 2011 Conference and Exposition
Location: Long Beach, CA
Country: United States
Start Date: September 27, 2011
End Date: September 29, 2011
Sponsors: American Inst. of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.
No Preview Available