NASA: Banged-Up Shuttle Tank Can Be Fixed in Florida

A preliminary inspection of space shuttle Atlantis's hail-damaged fuel tank shows it can be repaired in Florida, keeping it on track for a launch as soon as late April, a NASA spokeswoman said Friday.

NASA officials had feared that the agency would have had to replace the tank if the damage was too extensive, which would have pushed the launch date into June.

The ability of technicians at the Kennedy Space Center to make the repairs in Florida keeps Atlantis on target for a launch as early as late April, said NASA spokeswoman Jessica Rye in Cape Canaveral.

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"We'll continue with our inspections and something could turn up, but these preliminary inspections are telling us we can keep the tank attached to the boosters and keep moving forward," Rye said.

An explosive, freak hailstorm made thousands of dings on Atlantis' external tank last week as it waited on the launch pad for an originally scheduled March 15 lift off — the first launch of the year.

The shuttle was rolled back to its enormous hangar last Sunday, and technicians spent most of the week erecting scaffolding around the tank so they can make repairs.

The inspections will continue next week, but technicians have already started sanding down foam in the nose cone area of the tank. Technicians also made repairs to 20 of the 28 hail-damaged areas on Atlantis' wing.

No official date has been set, but Atlantis' launch would have to be after a Russian Soyuz vehicle completes a mission to the international space station in the first part of April.

The insulating foam is of special concern to NASA since a chunk of it flew off during space shuttle Columbia's launch in 2003 and struck the orbiter. The damage allowed fiery gases to penetrate Columbia during re-entry, breaking up the craft and killing its seven astronauts.

NASA redesigned the external tank, removing large amounts of foam, before last year's three successful shuttle missions. The space agency plans another design change to the tank before the shuttle program ends in 2010.