As I write this, NASA is fueling space shuttle Atlantis. Not for the historic last flight of the agency’s 30-year shuttle program, but to test repairs to the shuttle’s external fuel tank. Patches were applied to the aluminum struts in the center of the tank to address the very same issue that kept shuttle Discovery grounded last year. Reportedly, the brackets were made from an aluminum alloy that was more brittle than that of the tank, and that, along with assembly issues, led to the cracking on Discovery’s tank.

Liftoff for Atlantis is scheduled for July 8. In the meantime, NASA Technicians will X-ray the brackets on the tank to ensure the soundness of these repairs and check for cracking in the fuel tank support brackets.

Additionally, NASA is still analyzing issues from Endeavour’s recently completed flight. A glob of grease caught fire near the left main landing gear when Endeavour landed on June 1. Also, according to NASA spokesman Allard Beutel, the loss of foam insulation from Endeavour’s tank during liftoff on May 16 was age related. The tank was 10 years old, the oldest tank ever flown.

The issue of aging in space flight is not only pertinent from the standpoint of the number of years, but also from analyzing the time frame of a typical mission. For example, during Endeavour’s most recent mission, its 25th and final flight, the shuttle spent 299 days in space, orbited the Earth 4,671 times and traveled 122,883,151 miles after delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) and other critical supplies to the International Space Station.

Atlantis’ mission will carry the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station. Atlantis also will fly a system to investigate the potential for robotically refueling existing spacecraft and return a failed ammonia pump module.

Even though the Atlantis flight will be the 135th and final mission of the shuttle program, it is by no means the end of the Aerospace program in the U.S. NASA is under presidential direction to “shift from orbital flights to expeditions beyond.” NASA already has a number of missions on the books for the rest of 2011.

For instance, on August 5 the solar-powered Juno spacecraft is to orbit Jupiter’s poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. In September, The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission’s primary science objectives will be to determine the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core and to advance understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon, and in October The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) mission for NASA and NOAA is to measure Earth’s atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, humidity sounding, land and ocean biological activity and cloud and aerosol properties.

And this type of exploration is not limited to the United States. The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s has lead to just about every industrialized nation having its own aerospace program, from French and Swedish warplanes to the space agencies of the European Union, China, and India. Even Pakistan is perfecting missile technology and other aerospace engineering projects under its Institute of Space Technology.

This globalization of the aerospace industry has led to the need for updated standards. Read about the updates to the AS9100 standard in this month’s NDT cover feature, “AS9100C: Evolving to Align with the Globalization of Aerospace.” Also, keep up with the latest technologies, processes and theories for non-destructive testing in the Aerospace industry with “Magnetic Particle Theory and Processing Steps,” “Eddy Current Inspection: Sliding Probes,” and Greg Falk’s feature, “The History and Evolution of White Light Inspection Sources for Aerospace.”

Enjoy and thanks for reading!