3.2 The External Tank and Foam

The External Tank is the largest element of the Space Shuttle. Because it is the common element to which the Solid Rocket Boosters and the Orbiter are connected, it serves as the main structural component during assembly, launch, and ascent. It also fulfills the role of the low-temperature, or cryogenic, propellant tank for the Space Shuttle Main Engines. It holds 143,351 gallons of liquid oxygen at minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit in its forward (upper) tank and 385,265 gallons of liquid hydrogen at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit in its aft (lower) tank. #1

Lockheed Martin builds the External Tank under contract to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, Louisiana.

The External Tank is constructed primarily of aluminum al- loys (mainly 2219 aluminum alloy for standard-weight and lightweight tanks, and 2195 Aluminum-Lithium alloy for super-lightweight tanks), with steel and titanium fittings and attach points, and some composite materials in fairings and access panels. The External Tank is 153.8 feet long and 27.6 feet in diameter, and comprises three major sections: the liq- uid oxygen tank, the liquid hydrogen tank, and the intertank area between them(see Figure 3.2-1).The liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks are welded assemblies of machined and formed panels, barrel sections, ring frames, and dome and ogive sections.The liquid oxygen tank is pressure-tested with water,and the liquid hydrogen tank with compressed air, before they are incorporated into the External Tank assembly. STS-107 used Lightweight External Tank-93.

Figure 3.2-1. The major components of the External Tank. Liquid Oxygen Tank Liquid Hydrogen Tank Intertank
図3-2-1 : 外部燃料タンクの主要なコンポーネント。液体酸素タンク、液体水素タンク、中間タンク。

The propellant tanks are connected by the intertank, a 22.5- foot-long hollow cylinder made of eight stiffened aluminum alloy panels bolted together along longitudinal joints.Two of these panels, the integrally stiffened thrust panels (so called because they react to the Solid Rocket Booster thrust loads) are located on the sides of the External Tank where the Solid Rocket Boosters are mounted; they consist of single slabs of aluminum alloy machined into panels with solid longitudinal ribs. The thrust panels are joined across the inner diameter by the intertank truss, the major structural element of the External Tank. During propellant loading, nitrogen is used to purge the intertank to prevent condensation and also to pre- vent liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen from combining.
それぞれの燃料タンクは中間タンク―全長22.5フィート、8つの補強されたアルミニウム合金製のパネルを縦方向のジョイントでボルト止めした中空のシリンダー―で接続されます。 これらのうち2つのパネルは、外部燃料タンクの側面、固体燃料ロケットブースターが接続されている部分に位置する、一体補強されたスラストパネル(固体燃料ロケットブースターの推力[スラスト]の負荷に反応するためにこう呼ばれます)です。これらのパネルはアルミニウムのスラブから削りだされ、縦方向に固いリブが通っています。二枚のスラストパネルはインタータンクトラス―外部燃料タンクの主要構造―によって直径方向で接続されています。燃料が充填されている間は、インタータンクは窒素によってパージされます。これは結露を防ぎ、また液体酸素と液体水素が混じり合うのを防ぐためです。

The External Tank is attached to the Solid Rocket Boosters by bolts and fittings on the thrust panels and near the aft end of the liquid hydrogentank.The Orbiter is attached to the External Tank by two umbilical fittings at the bottom (that also contain fluid and electrical connections) and by a "bipod" at the top. The bipod is attached to the External Tank by fittings at the right and left of the External Tank center line.The bipod fittings, which are titanium forgings bolted to the External Tank, are forward (above) of the intertank-liquid hydrogen flange joint (see Figures 3.2-2 and 3.2-3). Each forging con- tains a spindle that attaches to one end of a bipod strut and rotates to compensate for External Tank shrinkage during the loading of cryogenic propellants.

Figure 3.2-2. The exterior of the left bipod attachment area show- ing the foam ramp that came off during the ascent of STS-107.
図3-2-2 : 左バイポッド接続部分の外観。STS-107の上昇中に破片が脱落した断熱材の傾斜部(ランプ)が見える

Figure 3.2-3. Cutaway drawing of the bipod ramp and its associated fittings and hardware.
図3-2-3 : バイポッド傾斜部および関連する接合金具とパーツの断面図。.

External Tank Thermal Protection System Materials

The External Tank is coated with two materials that serve as the Thermal Protection System: dense composite ablators for dissipating heat, and low density closed-cell foams for high insulation efficiency.2 (Closed-cell materials consist of small pores filled with air and blowing agents that are separated by thin membranes of the foams polymeric component.) The External Tank Thermal Protection System is designed to maintain an interior temperature that keeps the oxygen and hydrogen in a liquid state, and to maintain the temperature of external parts high enough to prevent ice and frost from forming on the surface. Figure 3.2-4 summarizes the foam systems used on the External Tank for STS-107.

Figure 3.2-4. Locations of the various foam systems as used on ET-93, the External Tank used for STS-107.
図3-2-4 : STS-107で使用された外部燃料タンクET-93に使用された各種の断熱材の場所を示します。

The adhesion between sprayed-on foam insulation and the External Tanks aluminum substrate is actually quite good, provided that the substrate has been properly cleaned and primed. (Poor surface preparation does not appear to have been a problem in the past.) In addition, large areas of the aluminum substrate are usually heated during foam application to ensure that the foam cures properly and develops the maximum adhesive strength. The interface between the foam and the aluminum substrate experiences stresses due to differences in how much the aluminum and the foam contract when subjected to cryogenic temperatures, and due to the stresses on the External Tanks aluminum structure while it serves as the backbone of the Shuttle stack. While these stresses at the foam-aluminum interface are certainly not trivial, they do not appear to be excessive, since very few of the observed foam loss events indicated that the foam was lost down to the primed aluminum substrate.

Throughout the history of the External Tank, factors unrelated to the insulation process have caused foam chemistry changes (Environmental Protection Agency regulations and material availability, for example). The most recent changes resulted from modifications to governmental regulations of chlorofluorocarbons.

Most of the External Tank is insulated with three types of spray-on foam. NCFI 24-124, a polyisocyanurate foam ap- plied with blowing agent HCFC 141b hydrochlorofluorocarbon, is used on most areas of the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks. NCFI 24-57, another polyisocyanurate foam applied with blowing agent HCFC 141b hydrochlo- rofluorocarbon, is used on the lower liquid hydrogen tank dome. BX-250, a polyurethane foam applied with CFC-11 chlorofluorocarbon, was used on domes, ramps, and areas where the foam is applied by hand. The foam types changed on External Tanks built after External Tank 93, which was used on STS-107, but these changes are beyond the scope of this section.
外部燃料タンクの大半の部分には、3種類の吹き付け用の断熱材が使われています。液体酸素および液体水素タンクの大半の部分に使われているNCFI24-124はポリイソシアヌレートの断熱材で、HCFC 141b炭化クロロフルオロカーボンが膨張剤として使われています。液体水素タンクの下部ドームに使われるNCFI 24-57は別のポリイソシアヌレートの断熱材でこれも、HCFC 141b炭化クロロフルオロカーボンが膨張剤として使われています。BX-250はポリウレタンの断熱材で、CFC-11クロロフルオロカーボンとともに使われ、ドームや傾斜部、手作業で断熱材が付加される部分に使用されます。STS-107で使用された外部燃料タンク93以後のタンクでは断熱材が変更されましたが、この変更の内容についてはこの章では扱いません。

Metallic sections of the External Tank that will be insulated with foam are first coated with an epoxy primer. In some areas, such as on the bipod hand-sculpted regions, foam is applied directly over ablator materials. Where foam is ap- plied over cured or dried foam, a bonding enhancer called Conathane is first applied to aid the adhesion between the two foam coats.

After foam is applied in the intertank region, the larger areas of foam coverage are machined down to a thickness of about an inch. Since controlling weight is a major concern for the External Tank, this machining serves to reduce foam thickness while still maintaining sufficient insulation.

The insulated region where the bipod struts attach to the External Tank is structurally, geometrically, and materially complex. Because of concerns that foam applied over the fittings would not provide enough protection from the high heating of exposed surfaces during ascent, the bipod fittings are coated with ablators. BX-250 foam is sprayed by hand over the fittings (and ablator materials), allowed to dry, and manually shaved into a ramp shape. The foam is visually inspected at the Michoud Assembly Facility and also at the Kennedy Space Center, but no other non-destructive evaluation is performed.

Since the Shuttles inaugural flight, the shape of the bipod ramp has changed twice. The bipod foam ramps on External Tanks 1 through 13 originally had a 45-degree ramp angle. On STS-7, foam was lost from the External Tank bipod ramp; subsequent wind tunnel testing showed that shallower angles were aerodynamically preferable. The ramp angle was changed from 45 degrees to between 22 and 30 degrees on External Tank 14 and later tanks. A slight modification to the ramp impingement profile, implemented on External Tank 76 and later, was the last ramp geometry change.

STS-107 Left Bipod Foam Ramp Loss
STS-107 左バイポッド傾斜部断熱材の脱落

A combination of factors, rather than a single factor, led to the loss of the left bipod foam ramp during the ascent of STS-107. NASA personnel believe that testing conducted during the investigation, including the dissection of as-built hardware and testing of simulated defects, showed conclusively that pre-existing defects in the foam were a major factor, and in briefings to the Board, these were cited as a necessary condi- tion for foam loss. However, analysis indicated that pre-ex- isting defects alone were not responsible for foam loss.

The basic External Tank was designed more than 30 years ago. The design process then was substantially different than it is today. In the 1970s, engineers often developed particular facets of a design (structural, thermal, and so on) one after another and in relative isolation from other engineers working on different facets. Today, engineers usually work together on all aspects of a design as an integrated team. The bipod fitting was designed first from a structural stand- point, and the application processes for foam (to prevent ice formation) and Super Lightweight Ablator (to protect from high heating) were developed separately. Unfortunately, the structurally optimum fitting design, along with the geometric complexity of its location (near the flange between the in- tertank and the liquid hydrogen tank), posed many problems in the application of foam and Super Lightweight Ablator that would lead to foam-ramp defects.

Although there is no evidence that substandard methods were used to qualify the bipod ramp design, tests made near- ly three decades ago were rudimentary by todays standards and capabilities. Also, testing did not follow the often-used engineering and design philosophy of "Fly what you test and test what you fly." Wind tunnel tests observed the aerodynamics and strength of two geometries of foam bipod enclosures (flat-faced and a 20-degree ramp), but these tests were done on essentially solid foam blocks that were not sprayed onto the complex bipod fitting geometry. Extensive material property tests gauged the strength, insulating potential, and ablative characteristics of foam and Super Lightweight Ablator specimens.

It was - and still is - impossible to conduct a ground-based, simultaneous, full-scale simulation of the combination of loads, airflows, temperatures, pressures, vibration, and acoustics the External Tank experiences during launch and ascent. Therefore, the qualification testing did not truly reflect the combination of factors the bipod would experience during flight. Engineers and designers used the best meth- ods available at the time: test the bipod and foam under as many severe combinations as could be simulated and then interpolate the results. Various analyses determined stresses, thermal gradients, air loads, and other conditions that could not be obtained through testing.


Significant analytical advancements have been made since the External Tank was first conceived, particularly in computational fluid dynamics (see Figure 3.2-5). Computational fluid dynamics comprises a computer-generated model that represents a system or device and uses fluid-flow physics and software to create predictions of flow behavior, and stress or deformation of solid structures. However, analysis must always be verified by test and/or flight data. The External Tank and the bipod ramp were not tested in the complex flight environment, nor were fully instrumented External Tanks ever launched to gather data for verifying analytical tools. The accuracy of the analytical tools used to simulate the External Tank and bipod ramp were verified only by using flight and test data from other Space Shuttle regions.

Figure 3.2-5. Computational Fluid Dynamics was used to under- stand the complex flow fields and pressure coefficients around bipod strut. The flight conditions shown here approximate those present when the left bipod foam ramp was lost from External Tank 93 at Mach 2.46 at a 2.08-degree angle of attack.
図3-2-5 : 複雑な空気の流れやバイポッド支柱周辺の圧力計数を把握するために計算流体力学が使われました。ここでは、おおよそ左バイポッド傾斜部から断熱材が脱落した時点,マッハ2.46、迎え角2.08度での外部燃料タンク93の飛行中の状態が示されています。

Further complicating this problem, foam does not have the same properties in all directions, and there is also variability in the foam itself. Because it consists of small hollow cells, it does not have the same composition at every point. This combination of properties and composition makes foam extremely difficult to model analytically or to characterize physically. The great variability in its properties makes for difficulty in predicting its response in even relatively static conditions, much less during the launch and ascent of the Shuttle. And too little effort went into understanding the origins of this variability and its failure modes.

The way the foam was produced and applied, particularly in the bipod region, also contributed to its variability. Foam consists of two chemical components that must be mixed in an exact ratio and is then sprayed according to strict specifications. Foam is applied to the bipod fitting by hand to make the foam ramp, and this process may be the primary source of foam variability. Board-directed dissection of foam ramps has revealed that defects (voids, pockets, and debris) are likely due to a lack of control of various combinations of parameters in spray-by-hand applications, which is exacerbated by the complexity of the underlying hardware configuration. These defects often occur along "knit lines," the boundaries between each layer that are formed by the repeated application of thin layers - a detail of the spray-by- hand process that contributes to foam variability, suggesting that while foam is sprayed according to approved proce- dures, these procedures may be questionable if the people who devised them did not have a sufficient understanding of the properties of the foam.

Subsurface defects can be detected only by cutting away the foam to examine the interior. Non-destructive evaluation techniques for determining External Tank foam strength have not been perfected or qualified (although non-destruc- tive testing has been used successfully on the foam on Boeings new Delta IV booster, a design of much simpler geometry than the External Tank). Therefore, it has been impossible to determine the quality of foam bipod ramp sonany External Tank. Furthermore, multiple defects in some cases can combine to weaken the foam along a line or plane.

"Cryopumping" has long been theorized as one of the processes contributing to foam loss from larger areas of coverage. If there are cracks in the foam, and if these cracks lead through the foam to voids at or near the surface of the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks, then air, chilled by the extremely low temperatures of the cryogenic tanks, can liquefy in the voids. After launch, as propellant levels fall and aerodynamic heating of the exterior increases, the temperature of the trapped air can increase, leading to boiling and evaporation of the liquid, with concurrent buildup of pressure within the foam. It was believed that the resulting rapid increase in subsurface pressure could cause foam to break away from the External Tank.

"Cryoingestion" follows essentially the same scenario, except it involves gaseous nitrogen seeping out of the in- tertank and liquefying inside a foam void or collecting in the Super Lightweight Ablator. (The intertank is filled with nitrogen during tanking operations to prevent condensation and also to prevent liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from combining.) Liquefying would most likely occur in the circumferential "Y" joint, where the liquid hydrogen tank mates with the intertank, just above the liquid hydrogen-in- tertank flange. The bipod foam ramps straddle this complex feature. If pooled liquid nitrogen contacts the liquid hydro- gen tank, it can solidify, because the freezing temperature of liquid nitrogen (minus 348 degrees Fahrenheit) is higher than the temperature of liquid hydrogen (minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit). As with cryopumping, cryoingested liquid or solid nitrogen could also "flash evaporate" during launch and ascent, causing the foam to crack off. Several paths allow gaseous nitrogen to escape from the intertank, including beneath the flange, between the intertank panels, through the rivet holes that connect stringers to intertank panels, and through vent holes beneath the stringers that prevent over- pressurization of the stringers.

No evidence suggests that defects or cryo-effects alone caused the loss of the left bipod foam ramp from the STS-107 External Tank. Indeed, NASA calculations have suggested that during ascent, the Super Lightweight Ablator remains just slightly above the temperature at which nitro- gen liquefies, and that the outer wall of the hydrogen tank near the bipod ramp does not reach the temperature at which nitrogen boils until 150 seconds into the flight,#3 which is too late to explain the only two bipod ramp foam losses whose times during ascent are known. Recent tests at the Marshall Space Flight Center revealed that flight conditions could permit ingestion of nitrogen or air into subsurface foam, but would not permit "flash evaporation" and a sufficient subsurface pressure increase to crack the foam. When conditions are modified to force a flash evaporation, the failure mode in the foam is a crack that provides pressure relief rather than explosive cracking. Therefore, the flight environment itself must also have played a role. Aerody- namic loads, thermal and vacuum effects, vibrations, stress in the External Tank structure, and myriad other conditions may have contributed to the growth of subsurface defects, weakening the foam ramp until it could no longer withstand flight conditions.

Conditions in certain combinations during ascent may also have contributed to the loss of the foam ramp, even if in- dividually they were well within design certification limits. These include a wind shear, associated Solid Rocket Booster and Space Shuttle Main Engine responses, and liquid oxygen sloshing in the External Tank.4 Each of these conditions, alone, does not appear to have caused the foam loss, but their contribution to the event in combination is unknown.

Negligence on the part of NASA, Lockheed Martin, or United Space Alliance workers does not appear to have been a factor. There is no evidence of sabotage, either during production or pre-launch. Although a Problem Report was written for a small area of crushed foam near the left bipod (a condi- tion on nearly every flight), this affected only a very small region and does not appear to have contributed to the loss of the ramp (see Chapter 4 for a fuller discussion). Nor does the basic quality of the foam appear to be a concern. Many of the basic components are continually and meticulously tested for quality before they are applied. Finally, despite commonly held perceptions, numerous tests show that moisture absorption and ice formation in the foam appears negligible.
NASA、ロッキード・マーティン、ユナイテッド・スペース・アライアンスの一部の作業員の怠慢が原因ではなさそうです。製造段階でも、打ち上げ前にも破壊工作が行われたという証拠はありません。しかし、問題報告書(Problem Report)には、左バイポッド付近の狭い範囲で断熱材が押し潰されていたことが報告されていますが、これが断熱材の脱落につながったとは考えられません(これについては第4章で扱います)。断熱材の元々の品質にも問題はありませんでした。多くの基本構成要素が、組み立てられる前に継続的かつ細心の注意を払ってテストされています。また、一般の認識とは異なり、非常に多くのテストで断熱材への水分の浸透と氷の形成は無視しうるものであることが分かっています。

Foam loss has occurred on more than 80 percent of the 79 missions for which imagery is available, and foam was lost from the left bipod ramp on nearly 10 percent of missions where the left bipod ramp was visible following External Tank separation. For about 30 percent of all missions, there is no way to determine if foam was lost; these were either night launches, or the External Tank bipod ramp areas were not in view when the images were taken. The External Tank was not designed to be instrumented or recovered after separation, which deprives NASA of physical evidence that could help pinpoint why foam separates from it.

The precise reasons why the left bipod foam ramp was lost from the External Tank during STS-107 may never be known. The specific initiating event may likewise remain a mystery. However, it is evident that a combination of variable and pre-existing factors, such as insufficient testing and analysis in the early design stages, resulted in a highly variable and complex foam material, defects induced by an imperfect and variable application, and the results of that imperfect process, as well as severe load, thermal, pressure, vibration, acoustic, and structural launch and ascent conditions.


F3.2-1 NASAdoes not fully understand the mechanisms that cause foam loss on almost all flights from larger areas of foam coverage and from areas that are sculpted by hand.

F3.2-2 There are no qualified non-destructive evaluation techniques for the as-installed foam to determine the characteristics of the foam before flight.

F3.2-3 Foam loss from an External Tank is unrelated to the tanks age and to its total pre-launch expo- sure to the elements. Therefore, the foam loss on STS-107 is unrelated to either the age or expo- sure of External Tank 93 before launch.

F3.2-4 The Board found no indications of negligence in the application of the External Tank Thermal Protection System.

F3.2-5 The Board found instances of left bipod ramp shedding on launch that NASAwas not aware of, bringing the total known left bipod ramp shed- ding events to 7 out of 72 missions for which im- agery of the launch or External Tank separation is available.

Subsurface defects were found during the dissec- tion of three bipod foam ramps, suggesting that similar defects were likely present in the left bi- pod ramp of External Tank 93 used on STS-107.

Foam loss occurred on more than 80 percent of the 79 missions for which imagery was available to confirm or rule out foam loss.

Thirty percent of all missions lacked sufficient imagery to determine if foam had been lost.

Analysis of numerous separate variables indicated that none could be identified as the sole initiating factor of bipod foam loss. The Board therefore concludes that a combination of several factors resulted in bipod foam loss.


Initiate an aggressive program to eliminate all External Tank Thermal Protection System de- bris-shedding at the source with particular em- phasis on the region where the bipod struts attach to the External Tank.