Return to Human Space Flight home page

External Tank Separation System

The external tank is separated from the orbiter at three structural attach points. Separation from the orbiter occurs before orbit insertion and is automatically controlled by the orbiter's general-purpose computers. External tank separation can be manually initiated by the flight crew using the same jettison circuits as the automatic sequence. Separation is controlled by the ET separation auto, man switch on panel C3 and the sep push button on panel C3. In the auto position, the onboard GPCs initiate separation. To manually initiate separation, the ET separation switch is positioned to man and the sep push button is depressed.

The forward structural attachment consists of a shear bolt unit mounted in a spherical bearing. The bolt separates at a break area when two pressure cartridges are initiated. The pressure from one or both cartridges drives one of a pair of pistons to shear the bolt, with the second piston acting as a hole plugger to fill the cavity left by the sheared bolt. A centering mechanism rotates the unit from the displacement position to a centered position, aligning the bearing flush with the adjacent thermal protection system mold line.

The aft structural attachment consists of two special bolts and pyrotechnically actuated frangible nuts that attach the external tank strut hemisphere to the orbiter's left- and right-side cavities. At separation the frangible nuts are split by a booster cartridge initiated by a detonator cartridge. The attach bolts are driven by the separation forces and a spring into a cavity in the tank strut. The frangible nut, cartridge fragments and hot gases are contained within a cover assembly, and a hole plugger isolates the fragments in the container.

The aft separation involves right and left umbilical assemblies. Each assembly contains three dual-detonator frangible nut and bolt combinations that hold the orbiter and external tank umbilical plates together during mated flight. Each bolt has a retraction spring that, after release of the nut, retracts the bolt to the external tank side of the interface. On the orbiter side, each frangible nut and its detonators are enclosed in a debris container that captures nut fragments and hot gases generated by the operation of the detonators, either of which will fracture the nut.

The right aft umbilical assembly consists of an electrical disconnect, the gaseous oxygen 2-inch pressurization disconnect used for pressurization of the external tank's oxygen tank and the 17-inch liquid oxygen disconnect.

The left aft umbilical assembly consists of an electrical disconnect plate, the gaseous hydrogen 2-inch pressurization disconnect used for pressurization of the external tank's hydrogen tank, the 4-inch recirculation disconnect used during prelaunch to precondition the main engine and the 17-inch liquid hydrogen disconnect.

After release of the three frangible nuts and bolts at each aft umbilical, three lateral support arms at each orbiter umbilical plate hold the plates in the lateral position when the external tank separates from the umbilical plates. Each 17-inch disconnect has been commanded closed. The orbiter umbilical plates are retracted inside the orbiter aft fuselage approximately 2.5 inches by three hydraulic actuators and locked to permit closure of the umbilical doors in the bottom of the aft fuselage. Hydraulic system 1 source pressure is supplied to one actuator at each umbilical, hydraulic system 2 source pressure is supplied to the second actuator at each umbilical, and hydraulic system 3 source pressure is supplied to a third actuator at each umbilical.

The retraction of each umbilical disconnects the external tank and orbiter electrical umbilical in the first 0.5 of an inch of travel and releases any fluids trapped between the 17-inch disconnect flappers.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
Web Accessibility and Policy Notices