I’m at Michoud this week on business, and had the opportunity to visit the factory today for the first time in nearly a year.
What a change ten months can make.
While last year, the dome tooling was still mostly in place (a few of the mechanical assembly pedestals had been pulled up), most of the mechanical assembly area and associated material cribs have been cleared out, leaving behind only the more complicated tools used for NC machining of the SRB fittings. Last year, there was still a pair of LOx tanks in post-proof inspection near the end of the production line, and an LH2 tank which had just had its forward dome (the last major segment) welded on. Today, all of the weld tools (domes, barrels, ogives, and major weld) had been mothballed and wrapped up, along with the large milling machines and lathes used to trim the various segments – it was like walking through a winter storage facility filled with shrink-wrapped boats.
What impressed me the most, however, was that for the first time in twelve-plus years, I saw areas of the factory with the lights turned off.
What this suggests is that there isn’t any hardware work going on to extend the Shuttle program beyond the number of tanks currently on-hand or in final assembly. If, as rumored, NASA is directed to extend the Shuttle program, they’d better start soon if they don’t want to end up with the long gap such an extension would be meant to avoid or minimize — due simply to the time lag in tank manufacturing. And if what I was told about spares is true, it may only be possible to manufacture two additional tanks, assuming at that that everything would go perfectly and none of the spare components on order or in house have unrepairable defects or damage. With the one flightworthy tank I’m told will be left over at the end of the Shuttle program, that means an extension of at most three flights before the supply chain would need to be restarted — at considerable expense and delay.