Atlantis Gets a Tuneup

This is no ordinary dissection meticulously taking place in a cavernous hangar in the High Desert.

This operation involves hundreds of people working thousands of hours, miles of wire and millions of components. The procedure is spelled out in intricate detail in 60,000 pages of documents.

Technicians and engineers from the Boeing Co. are working around the clock to dismember and rebuild the space shuttle Atlantis inside the company’s Orbiter Major Modification Facility at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale. It is the same hangar in which all the shuttles were built.

The $70-million overhaul is the most extensive make-over in the shuttle program’s history.


Once the procedure is complete--which is expected in August--Atlantis will be the best equipped, most state-of-the-art orbiter in the shuttle fleet.


One hundred major modifications, 443 inspections and 323 changes to the shuttle are included in the nine-month renovation job, which began in November and calls for 725,000 hours of work.

Main engine: Increased propulsion and reliability


Radiators: Addition of materials to the surface to protect from small space debris.

External air lock: Modification to the that will allow it to dock at the space station.

Global positioning system: Installation of a satellite-based navigation system that relies on the Global Positioning System to increase safety and reduce shuttle operational costs.

Heat shield tiles: Any of the 24,000 black, heat-shield tiles on the wings and nose that are unfit for continued use are being replaced with lighter, more durable ones.


Cockpit: Installation of state-of-the-art cockpit equipment, including flat screen liquid crystal display panels that replace 1970s-era video screens, mechanical gauges, dials and analog equipment.

Fuselage: Replacement of thermal blankets on the fuselage with lightweight, thermal insulation to reduce weight and increase performance.


When working on Atlantis--which has 230 miles of wire and 2 million components, including 1 million moving parts--there seems to be no shortage of precautions.


* Besides a visual inspection and X-rays of the entire vehicle, borescopes and ultrasonic waves are used in the search for metal fatigue, corrosion, cracks, and broken rivets and welds.

* Workers wear sterile, white “bunny suits” that cover their bodies from head to toe and pass through jets of air that blow away minuscule dust particles.

* Technicians remove, tether or tape jewelry to their skin so nothing is lost inside the shuttle. Eyeglasses are tied behind the head. Hand tools are secured with special nylon strings to the technicians’ wrists.

* A daily vacuum is done over any area where technicians have been working.


* Once work in an area is completed, it is sterilized with an alcohol solution and inspected with black lights for any microscopic particles that may have been left behind.


* Atlantis was the fourth shuttle built and was delivered to NASA in April 1985. It flew its first mission six months later.

* This is the shuttle’s second renovation, following a $74-million upgrade completed in 1994.


* In its 13-year lifetime, Atlantis has racked up 62 million miles over the course of 20 missions, including seven stops at the Russian space station Mir.

* In separate missions, it deployed the Venus-bound Magellan and Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft.

Sources: Boeing Co.; NASA

Researched by SHARON MOESER / Special to The Times