The largest and heaviest (when loaded) element of the Space Shuttle, the external tank, has three major components: the forward liquid oxygen tank, an unpressurized intertank which contains most of the electrical components, and the aft liquid hydrogen tank. The external tank is 47 meters (154.2 feet) long and has a diameter of 8.38 meters (27.5 feet).
The external tank contains the liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer and supplies them under pressure to the three space shuttle main engines in the orbiter during lift-off and ascent. When the SSMEs are shut down, the ET is jettisoned, enters the Earth's atmosphere, breaks up, and impacts in a remote ocean area. It is not recovered.
The ET is attached to the orbiter at one forward attachment point and two aft points. In the aft attachment area, there are also umbilicals that carry fluids, gases, electrical signals and electrical power between the tank and the orbiter. Electrical signals and controls between the orbiter and the two solid rocket boosters also are routed through those umbilicals.
Beginning with the STS-6 mission, a lightweight ET was introduced. Each weighs approximately 66,000 pounds inert. The last heavyweight tank weighed approximately 77,000 pounds inert. For each pound of weight reduced from the ET, the cargo-carrying capability of the space shuttle spacecraft was increased almost one pound.
Liquid Hydrogen Tank
The liquid hydrogen tank is an aluminum semimonocoque structure of fusion-welded barrel sections, five major ring frames, and forward and aft ellipsoidal domes. Its operating pressure range is 32 to 34 psia. The tank contains an anti-vortex baffle and siphon outlet to transmit the liquid hydrogen from the tank through a 17-inch line to the left aft umbilical. The liquid hydrogen feed line flow rate is 465 pounds per second with the SSMEs at 104 percent or a maximum flow of 47,365 gallons per minute. At the forward end of the liquid hydrogen tank is the ET / orbiter forward attachment pod strut, and at its aft end are the two ET / orbiter aft attachment ball fittings as well as the aft SRB-ET stabilizing strut attachments. The liquid hydrogen tank is 331 inches in diameter, 1,160 inches long, and has a volume of 53,518 cubic feet and a dry weight of 29,000 pounds.
Liquid Oxygen Tank
The liquid oxygen tank is an aluminum monocoque structure composed of a fusion-welded assembly of preformed, chem-milled gores, panels, machined fittings and ring chords. It operates in a pressure range of 20 to 22 psig. The tank contains anti-slosh and anti-vortex provisions to minimize liquid residuals and damp fluid motion. The tank feeds into a 17-inch-diameter feed line that conveys the liquid oxygen through the intertank, then outside the ET to the aft right-hand ET / orbiter disconnect umbilical. The 17-inch-diameter feed line permits liquid oxygen to flow at approximately 2,787 pounds per second with the SSMEs operating at 104 percent or permits a maximum flow of 17,592 gallons per minute. The liquid oxygen tank's double-wedge nose cone reduces drag and heating, contains the vehicle's ascent air data system and serves as a lightning rod. The liquid oxygen tank's volume is 19,563 cubic feet. It is 331 inches in diameter, 592 inches long and weighs 12,000 pounds empty.