Space Shuttle External Tank (ET) Applications: ET as Space Facility (1982)

Big tank: External Tank-1, with the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia and twin Solid Rocket Boosters attached, arrives at Launch Pad 39-A at NASA Kennedy Space Center, Florida, after its roll-out from the Vehicle Assembly Building on 29 December 1980. Note the fire truck for scale. Image credit: NASA.
NASA announced in August 1973 that it had awarded Martin Marietta Corporation a $107-million contract to develop the Space Shuttle External Tank (ET). The initial contract called for the manufacture of three ground test ETs and six flight test ETs. The first Shuttle flight test was expected as early as 1977.

Four years later (9 September 1977), the first ET rolled off the Martin Marietta assembly line at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, near New Orleans, Louisiana. By the next day, the space agency had moved the tank the short distance to the National Space Technology Laboratories (NSTL — now called NASA Stennis Space Center) in southern Mississippi. 

The 153.8-foot-long (46.9-meter-long), 27.5-foot-diameter (8.4-meter-diameter) ET included three major parts, all made mostly of aluminum alloy. Its forward third, shaped like a fat teardrop for streamlining, was the 19,500-cubic-foot (552-cubic-meter), 55-foot-long (16.8-meter-long) liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. Its aft two-thirds was the 53,500-cubic-foot (1515-cubic-meter), 97-foot-long (29.6-meter-long) liquid hydrogen (LH2) tank, a cylinder with dome-shaped ends. The two pressure vessels partially nested in the drum-shaped intertank, which measured 22 feet (6.7 meters) in length. The nine ETs delivered under the initial Martin Marietta contract each weighed about 38.6 U.S. tons (35 metric tons) empty. 

First tank: the Main Propulsion Test Article (MPTA) External Tank (ET) rolls off the Martin Marietta assembly line at Michoud Assembly Facility, Louisiana, on 9 September 1977. The three major ET components are discernible; the ribbed intertank separates the cylindrical liquid hydrogen (LH2) tank, the largest component, from the streamlined liquid oxygen tank at left. Please note the LH2 tank aft dome just clearing the door at right. Image credit: NASA.
Though unveiled amid much ceremony, the first ET was not intended for flight. Instead, it became the largest component of the Main Propulsion Test Article (MPTA). Other MPTA parts included a sturdy truss that stood in for the Shuttle Orbiter and a cluster of three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) attached to the truss. The MPTA was hoisted vertical, mounted on an NSTL test stand, and put to work in SSME tests. 

On 29 June 1979, Martin Marietta rolled out the first flight ET. NASA loaded ET-1 onto a barge and shipped it across the Gulf of Mexico, around the southern tip of Florida, and up the Atlantic coast to NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC). There the tank was moved to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and mated to a pair of Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and the Orbiter Columbia in preparation for the first mission of the Space Transportation System (STS), which was aptly designated STS-1.

NASA rolled the STS-1 stack out of the VAB on 29 December 1980. Four months later (12 April 1981), it lifted off from Launch Complex 39-A. On board Columbia for her maiden flight were astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen. Shortly after the first Orbiter's triumphant return to Earth, NASA reduced the number of flight tests to four, freeing two of the flight test ETs for operational flights. 

The ET performed two critical functions during every Shuttle flight. It carried about 800 U.S. tons (725 metric tonnes) of LH2 fuel and LOX oxidizer for the three SSMEs in the Orbiter's tail; in addition, it bound together and provided thrust load paths for the 120-U.S.-ton (109-metric-tonne) Orbiter and twin 650-U.S.-ton (590-metric-tonne) SRBs. Together the three SSMEs on the Orbiter and the SRBs generated about seven million pounds (31,100,000 newtons) of thrust at liftoff.

The SRBs expended their propellants and separated from attachment fixtures on either side of the ET about two minutes after liftoff. They fell into the ocean and were recovered for reuse. The ET supplied propellants to the SSMEs for a further six and a half minutes; then, shortly after SSME shutdown, it was cast off and made to tumble to hasten its fall into Earth's atmosphere. When the ET separated from the Orbiter, it typically contained about 15 tons of leftover propellants (weight is approximate, so U.S. and metric units both apply). Reentry destroyed the ET; surviving pieces fell in remote ocean areas.

Orbiter and ET attained about 98% of orbital velocity before the latter was discarded. Two small Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines in the Orbiter's tail then supplied the remaining 2% of the velocity needed to boost it, its crew, and its payload into a stable circular orbit about the Earth.

The process by which NASA arrived at the Shuttle design was complex. Until mid-1971, most designs paired a reusable, winged, piloted Orbiter with a reusable, winged, piloted Booster. The latter would have released the former just short of orbit. In most designs, the Booster would then have performed a wide 180° turn, deployed jet engines, and flown to a runway landing near its launch site. The semi-reusable Orbiter/ET/SRB stack, forced on NASA by funding limits imposed by President Richard Nixon, was, by comparison, a kludge — but in the minds of some spaceflight planners, it created an opportunity.

Beginning about the time the MPTA ET rolled out at Michoud, planners proposed that NASA boost ETs into orbit and put them to use. Some assumed that the ET would supply the SSMEs with LOX and LH2 until orbit was attained. Others assumed that the SSMEs would shut down just short of orbital velocity as during a normal flight, but that the Orbiter would retain the ET; then, when the twin OMS engines ignited to complete injection into orbit, it would bring the ET along for the ride.

When one reads of plans to exploit the ET in space, it is important to recall the giddy optimism many felt during Shuttle development in the 1970s. It started early — for example, the aerospace industry publication Aviation Week & Space Technology reported at the time Martin Marietta won its initial ET contract that NASA anticipated that 439 flight ETs would be manufactured through 1984. Assuming a first launch at the start of 1977, this implied a Shuttle launch every six days. 

The Shuttle, it was expected, would fly so cheaply that NASA would be able to spend the lion's share of its human spaceflight budget on payloads the Orbiter could carry to orbit in its 15-by-60-foot (4.6-by-18.3-meter) payload bay, not on transportation costs. At a bare minimum, such payloads would include government and commercial satellites and components and supplies for an expansive Space Station that Orbiter crews would assemble in orbit.

Proposed ET uses fell into three categories: propellant scavenging, exploitation of ET aluminum, and conversion of ET structures. LOX and LH2 scavenged from the ET could, some estimated, economically supply Space Tugs based at the Space Station; they would transport astronauts and cargo throughout cislunar space. Ground up or melted down, ETs could become propellant for aluminum-burning rocket engines, aluminum girders and trusses for large space structures, and reaction mass for electromagnetic mass drivers. Partially disassembled or clustered, ETs might be converted into space habitats, telescopes, propellant depots, warehouses, greenhouses, space warfare decoys, and platforms for instruments and weapons.

Brown tank: liftoff of Columbia at the start of STS-4, the final Orbital Flight Test mission (27 June-4 July 1982). Only STS-1 and STS-2 flew with white tanks; starting with STS-3, NASA opted not to paint the ETs. Image credit: NASA.
In July 1982, shortly after STS-4, the last Shuttle flight test, Martin Marietta completed a study for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center of the Aft Cargo Carrier (ACC) (see "More Information" below). Structurally similar to the ET — the company envisioned that it would be manufactured at Michoud using ET tooling and jigs — the ACC would ride to orbit attached to the dome-shaped aft end of the ET LH2 tank. As might be expected given Martin Marietta's ET expertise, the ACC proposal was among the most technically credible of the many ET exploitation schemes put forward in the late 1970s and 1980s.

As its name implies, the ACC, which would include two sections, was intended chiefly to augment Shuttle payload capacity. Use of the 27.5-foot-diameter (8.4-meter-diameter), 31.9-foot-long (9.7-meter-long) ACC with the Shuttle Orbiter payload bay would nearly double maximum Shuttle payload diameter and volume. Other ACC applications were possible, however; its lower section might, for example, serve as a protective shroud covering a "Space Facility Module" bolted to the ET LH2 tank aft dome. The ACC shroud would shield the drum-shaped pressurized module from the harsh thermal and acoustic environment the SRBs would create at the aft end of the ET during Shuttle ascent.

This image of the two-part Martin Marietta Aft Cargo Carrier (ACC) shows its proximity in flight to the three Space Shuttle Main Engines mounted to the Orbiter's tail. The Solid Rocket Boosters can be assumed to have detached; typically they would obstruct the view of the ACC from this angle. The ACC is mounted to and covers the aft dome of the ET liquid hydrogen tank. Image credit: Martin Marietta.
Space Facility Modules would have different functions, but all would include a vertical cylindrical airlock that would enable astronauts to take advantage of a circular 36-inch (91.4-centimeter) "manhole" in the LH2 aft dome. A feature of all ETs, the manhole was designed to permit technicians on the ground to access the LH2 tank interior during ET checkout and launch preparation. In space, it would enable astronauts to enter and convert the LH2 tank for a range of purposes.

Space Facility Modules would thus resemble the Spent Stage Experiment Support Module (SSESM) proposed in the early 1960s for use with Apollo Saturn S-IVB rocket stages. The S-IVB, the second stage of the two-stage Saturn IB rocket and the third stage of the three-stage Saturn V, included in its upper two-thirds an LH2 tank. The drum-shaped SSESM, launched attached to the top of a Saturn IB S-IVB, would have enabled astronauts to enter the empty LH2 tank to outfit it in orbit as an Earth-orbiting space station. A 1966 plan proposed landing a Saturn V-launched SSESM/S-IVB combination on the Moon (see "More Information" below). 

Space Facility Module: the Service Module. Please note the off-center, slanted port at top, just left of center; conforming to the shape of the aft dome of the ET liquid hydrogen tank, it would enable access to the manhole located there. The Service Module has five additional ports; two radial ports with petal-type docking units and the tunnel leading to the aft port are visible. Image credit: Martin Marietta.
The company described the rapid growth of an Earth-orbiting Space Facility space station. The first Space Facility launch would see an Orbiter boost an ET with attached Space Facility Module — configured as a "Service Module" — into a 215-nautical-mile-high (398.2-kilometer-high) orbit. During ascent, 15 seconds after the SRBs separated from the Shuttle stack, the lower section of the ACC shroud would separate and fall away, exposing the Service Module. The Orbiter would retain the ET, firing its SSMEs until the desired orbit was achieved.

The Orbiter crew would vent residual ET propellants through the SSMEs and would hand off ET stabilization to an attitude control/orbit-maintenance propulsion system in the Service Module, then would separate their spacecraft from the ET/Service Module combination and perform station-keeping with it. The Service Module would deploy a pair of electricity-producing solar arrays and orient them toward the Sun. 

The Space Facility would include three Docking/Service Tunnels. Image credit: Martin Marietta.
The astronauts would next open the Orbiter payload bay doors and use the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) robot arm to hoist a "Docking/Service Tunnel" out of the payload bay. After linking the tunnel to an aft-facing port on the Service Module, they would dock the Orbiter with the tunnel. They would then enter the newly established Space Facility.

In addition to its propulsion system, power system, and airlock linking it to the ET LH2 tank, the Service Module would contain life support systems and living and working space for several astronauts. Its single pressurized volume would, however, only be occupied if an Orbiter were docked to it; this was a safety measure meant to ensure that the crew could reach a safe haven in the event of Space Facility depressurization, fire, or atmospheric contamination.

Space Facility Module: the Habitat Module. Image credit: Martin Marietta.
Addition of a second ET with Space Facility Module — this time configured as a "Habitat Module" — would remove that restriction. The Orbiter and ET/Habitat Module would rendezvous with the Space Facility; then, after separation, the crew would hoist a second Docking/Service Tunnel out of the payload bay and link it to one of four radial (side-mounted) ports on the Service Module. The ET/Habitat Module would then move or be moved (by a means not described) so that it could link one of its radial ports with the second tunnel, binding the two Space Facility Module/ET combinations together.

The astronauts would next use the RMS to hoist a Logistics Module out of the payload bay. They would attach the small module, which would contain supplies and small experiment apparatus, to one of the four Habitat Module radial ports. With that task completed, they would dock with and enter the Space Facility. With the addition of the Habitat Module, astronauts could remain on board after the Orbiter departed.

The third Space Facility assembly flight would see a Shuttle Orbiter arrive with a full payload bay and no ET or Space Facility Module. A third Docking/Service Tunnel would be hoisted from the payload bay and linked to a Service Module radial port, then a small piloted space tug designed for satellite deployment, retrieval, and repair would be docked to the new tunnel. 

Finally, an experiment pallet based on the Spacelab pallet designed originally for operation in the Orbiter payload bay would be attached to the exterior of one of the ETs. It would be the first of many experiment payloads that would employ the ETs as stable space platforms. 

The Space Facility would be fully operational after just three Shuttle flights. Attached to the ETs at center right are the Service Module with twin solar arrays and the Habitat Module. An experiment pallet designed originally to conform to the Shuttle payload bay stands out against the ET exterior just left of image center. In this artist's conception other components — a logistics module with black stripes, a small space tug, and the Docking/Service Tunnel to which the Orbiter is docked — are incorrectly depicted. See post text for their correct locations and sizes. Image credit: Martin Marietta/DSFPortree.
By the time the Orbiter departed for the third time, the Space Facility would, Martin Marietta declared, enable "a permanent manned presence in space." The services it offered, the company added, would "significantly complement. . .the basic Shuttle capability." 

Martin Marietta saw no reason to stop there. It proposed that astronauts would eventually outfit the interiors of the Space Facility's ET LH2 tanks with decks and furnishings. NASA might also expand the Space Facility by adding new ETs. These could be converted in orbit into hangars for storing and servicing satellites. The 27.5-foot-diameter (8.4-meter-diameter) LH2 tank would, the company noted, provide ample room for satellites sized for launch in the Orbiter payload bay.

Space Facility expansion: a scheme for outfitting the interior of an ET liquid hydrogen tank as a comfortable habitat housing 16 astronauts. Image credit: Martin Marietta.
Martin Marietta's Space Facility concept died an early death in large part because it was seen to compete with NASA's Space Station plans, which favored trusses and modules sized for launch in the Shuttle payload bay. After January 1984, when President Ronald Reagan called on the space agency to build a Space Station, plans to exploit ETs as habitats, hangars, or platforms stood almost no chance of acceptance.


"News Digest," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 20 August 1973, p. 25. 

"Shuttle Tanks Undergo Tests at Michoud," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 23 May 1977, p. 49. 

"The Low (Profile) Road to Space Manufacturing," G. O'Neill, Astronautics & Aeronautics, Vol. 16, No. 3, March 1978, pp. 24-32. 

"NASA Studying Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicles," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 8 March 1982, p. 81.

"NASA Seeks Shuttle Capability Growth," C. Covault, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 23 April 1982, pp. 42-43, 45, 47, 51-52.

"Martin Studies Shuttle Aft Cargo Unit," E. Kolcum, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 12 July 1982, p. 65-66. 

"External Tank Applications in Space," K. Timmons, A. Norton, and F. Williams, Martin Marietta; paper presented at the Unispace Conference in Vienna, Austria, 9-17 August 1982.

"External Tank Depicted as Space Station Element," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 6 September 1982, p. 246.

External Tank ACC Aft Cargo Carrier, Martin Marietta, no date (late 1982).

More Information

S-IVB/IU Applications: The LASS Proposal (1966)

Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)

One Space Shuttle, Two Cargo Volumes: Martin Marietta's Aft Cargo Carrier (1982)


  1. Why did NASA want the truss-based systems even after it became clear they would never get funding for the dual-keel Freedom station?
    Seems like they could have saved money vs what it was in our timeline in terms of Shuttle launches and EVAs.

    1. F: It's even weirder than that — originally trusses were to have been built by hand in space and the various subsystems attached to them (for example radiators and solar arrays) added in orbit. Only after it became clear in 1990-1991 that the amount of EVA time required to do that would be downright impossible did they shift over to pre-assembled/integrated trusses. The horizontal truss was retained after Dual-Keel in large part because NASA planners hoped to add at least part of the Dual-Keel truss structure to SSF at a later time — that eventually "shipyard" functions (as I like to call them) would be added to SSF. When SSF turned into ISS, work on the integrated trusses was well advanced, so they went ahead even though there was by then no likelihood any new truss sections would be added. dsfp

  2. It's interesting that all the designs for habitable areas look almost as if they were designed to operate in gravity, with distinct floors, separated into rooms. Whereas the ISS has turned out to be much more "3D", with basically open cylindrical modules, where every surface is used.
    I wonder if this was due to NASA (and other agencies) gaining more experience of working in microgravity, and finding a more ergonomic arrangement. Or perhaps if they'd had more internal volume to work with, they might have stayed with a layout more reminiscent of a building on the ground.

    1. Tom: I wondered about that, too. There's nothing in the documentation that discusses the layout of the big 16-person LH2 tank habitat. I think that it was seen mostly as a "gee-whiz!" concept — do-able, but grandiose enough that they'd leave fleshing it out until later. It's also quite possible that the drawing is an artist's concept meant to convey how nifty the concept would be without worrying too much about accuracy (I think that's likely given that the LH2 tank manhole is not at the center of the aft dome, but it looks like it is in the drawing). The things you suggest are also quite possible. It occurs to me that the Skylab living quarters tended toward a definite up and down, and late 1960s monolithic station plans tended to be like cylindrical buildings with decks — one might have placed one on Earth and found it quite functional. dsfp

    2. Not everyone has abandoned wet workshop concepts:

      Now what many do not know is that the SLS core-block of Artemis I had an apogee of 1,800 kilometers!

      See this website:

      Scroll down and you will see the largest single object ever put in space.

      Now I can’t help but think the engine block might one day be designed to be removed:

      See here:

      A similar concept is Skylab II

  3. Some still look at wet workshops

    1. A: Oh, yes, of that I am aware. My post is about Shuttle ETs, however, and though SLS hardware is a largely derivative of the ET, it's operationally different — I doubt we'll ever see the Shuttle ET and its related operational exploitation approaches make a comeback. I do history, which often has lessons for the present and future — when I state in my post that Shuttle ET exploitation didn't get anywhere, it's not meant to say that future large propellant tank applications are impossible or undesirable. dsfp

    2. Speaking of that:

      An engineless orbiter like Buran was looked at---as you can see on page 9, Figure 21, but no footnote was given. I haven't been able to track down that MSFC study----lots of goodies there on that site.

    3. A: Thanks for the citation! Folks have pointed me to that paper a few times in the past — I think it's good as far as it goes but lacks details (and, as you note, sometimes adequate citations). Of course it stands out because its authors studied the concepts it describes. dsfp

  4. Scott Lowther has a whole series called:
    “Possibilities of New Business Growth”
    from Rockwell. Here is one:


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