This answer states that Space Shuttle's External Tank (ET) was fuelled (this process is known as Tanking) through the Orbiter's main engine plumbing system with the Tail Service Masts (TSM). One delivered LH2 and the other delivered LOX.

For reference, here's a picture of the TSM fuelling Space Shuttle Atlantis.

enter image description here

However why not just directly fuel the ET instead of the fuel and oxidizer going through the orbiter. It seems like the orbiter's fuel plumbing system would be a lot more complex with fuel going from the TSM, into the orbiter, and then into the ET. Not only that, but the LOX had to be pumped up to where the LOX tank was located (in the upper half of the ET) whereas if it was directly fuelled into the ET, the pipes can be pumped upward in the tower possibly saving weight on the ET by not having a LOX feed-line.

Question: So what are the advantages or reasons that got NASA to fuel the ET through the orbiter instead of directly fuelling the ET?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "saving weight on the ET by not having a LOX feed-line" - That would leave you with no way to feed the LOX from the tank to the engines. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Oct 19, 2019 at 19:18

1 Answer 1


I don't have a great reference for this, but it was to reduce cost on the throw-away External Tank.

By using the same interface into the Orbiter used to supply propellants to the main engines, the cost and complexity of adding a dedicated loading interface to the tank was avoided.

It was not a tremendous complexity hit to the Orbiter Main Propulsion system plumbing. Basically "tees" and valves were added which interfaced the feedlines running from the tank to the engines, to the umbilical disconnects that interfaced with the Tail Service Masts.

enter image description here

(From the Ascent Pocket Checklist, fill lines highlighted)

As the only disposable major element of the system, there was great emphasis placed on cost of the tank. This is clear from even a skim of Lessons Learned From Space Shuttle External Tank Development - A Technical History of the External Tank - although the specific case of lacking a dedicated loading interface is not addressed in the document.


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