Michoud, Louisiana -- It will be the end of an astonishing 25-year era of space travel when the last US space shuttle -- the 134 th flight -- is launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in November.
And it will also see the last use of the giant orange external fuel tanks, insulated with polyurethane foam, and made by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co workers at its Michoud, Louisiana, base.
NASA -- the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- and Lockheed Martin commemorated 37 years of successful tank deliveries with a ceremony 8 July, at the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, when it rolled out the final external tank for the last space shuttle flight.
The last external tank scheduled to fly on a shuttle mission was completed 25 June by the Michoud workers. The tank, designated ET-138, travelled on a wheeled transporter a mile to the Michoud barge dock, accompanied by the Storyville Stompers, a traditional-area brass band, and hundreds of handkerchief-waving employees - "in typical New Orleans fashion and spirit," said NASA.
From New Orleans, the tank will travel, as all the others have done, on a 900-mile sea journey to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where it will be used on the last shuttle launch -- Endeavour STS-134.
Michoud Space Systems workers, of Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Littleton, Colorado, have delivered 135 of these tanks to NASA during the 25 years of flying the space shuttle.
The external tank, is the "gas tank" for the orbiter, and holds the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants used by the space shuttle's main engines for take-off. It also forms the backbone of the shuttle during launch, providing structural support for attachment of the solid rocket boosters and orbiter.
The external tanks are also the only component of the space shuttle that are not reused, NASA points out. About 8.5 minutes into a flight, with all its propellant exhausted, the tanks are jettisoned into the ocean.
NASA gives the following data to indicate the immense scale of the tanks: "Taller than a 15-storey building and more than 27 ft (8.23 m) in diameter, the external tank absorbs the 7.8 million pounds (3.44 kilotonnes) of thrust of the three space shuttle main engines and solid rocket boosters during a space shuttle launch. It feeds 145 000 gallons (548 880 litres) of liquid oxygen and 390 000 gallons (1506 590 litres) of liquid hydrogen to the main engines.
The external tank's main components are separate tanks for the liquid oxygen and hydrogen and a collar-like intertank, which connects the two and houses instrumentation and processing equipment as well as providing the attachment structure for the solid rocket boosters.
When this last tank, ET-138, arrives at Kennedy, processing will begin to mate it with shuttle Endeavour and solid rocket boosters for the STS-134 mission, scheduled to launch no earlier than mid-November. The mission will deliver the Express Logistics Carrier 3 and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. It will be the 36th shuttle mission to the space station and the 134th and final scheduled shuttle flight.
In fact, NASA also notes that work will be completed on an additional tank, ET-122, which was at Michoud during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and was damaged by falling debris. This is being restored to flight configuration and is scheduled for delivery to Kennedy in late September to serve as the "Launch on Need" tank, if needed, for STS-134.