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    Welders to tackle shuttle fuel line cracks

    ©Associated Press
    August 3, 2002

    CAPE CANAVERAL -- With the entire space shuttle fleet grounded this summer by fuel line cracks, NASA said Friday that it will weld the flawed plumbing and aim for a launch in late September.

    Space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said NASA has assembled "a Super Bowl of welders" from across the country for the unprecedented job, which will begin next week on shuttle Atlantis. The hope is to launch Atlantis on a belated space station construction mission as early as Sept. 28.

    Dittemore said the shuttle welding will require more precision than typical hard-hat work.

    NASA decided to bump Atlantis ahead of Columbia's scientific research mission with the first Israeli astronaut, because of the space station's more pressing needs. Endeavour will follow Atlantis to the station as early as Nov. 2. Columbia, which should have been in orbit now, will not fly until the end of November at the earliest.

    Shuttle flights were halted this summer after 11 hairline cracks no longer than three-tenths of an inch were found in the hydrogen-fuel lines of all four spaceships. The cracks were in the metal liners and are thought to have been there for years and perhaps decades.

    NASA is not sure exactly how or when the cracking occurred. Dittemore said it is clear that the intense roar and vibration of the main engines, or the effect of the fuel, contributed to the problem.

    The cracks, for now, are not considered dangerous. But engineers fear the cracks might grow and then splinter into shrapnel that could get sucked into an engine with catastrophic consequences.

    Before deciding on welding, NASA reviewed other repair options and even evaluated whether the cracks needed to be fixed at all.

    NASA will test-fire spare engines to try to solve the mystery of the cracks and determine whether the welding will keep the fuel lines intact for the next 20 years.

    "We feel confident about our knowledge of the crack itself and our ability to repair it, but we're not as confident about what that smoking gun is," Dittemore said.

    INSPECTOR MAY BE REWARDED: Within the space agency there's talk of an award for David Strait, 27, a sometime surfer with 20/20 vision who works for United Space Alliance, a NASA contractor.

    He caught the biggest potential hazard at the launch site since an engineer spied a 4-inch pin wedged against Discovery's fuel tank during a countdown in 2000.

    If Strait had not spotted the fuel line crack inside space shuttle Atlantis that morning in June, engineers fear, the cracks might have grown, chipped and led to a launch explosion.

    Dittemore praised Strait on Friday and said he deserves a medal. "The guy's an absolute star."

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