July 27, 2005

Astronauts perform first shuttle damage inspection

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Astronauts on the shuttle Discovery
slowly scanned the wings and nose of their spacecraft with a
laser-equipped robot arm on Wednesday in a critical safety
inspection never before performed on a shuttle mission.

Maneuvering the computer-aided arm from within the orbiter,
the astronauts looked for cracks that could endanger the
shuttle when it returns to the Earth's atmosphere for landing
on Aug. 7 and builds up temperatures up to 2,500 degrees F.

Television shots from space showed the procedure from the
perspective of the laser, which is accompanied by a television
camera, as the robot arm crept along the black edge of the

Almost halfway through the inspection, which was expected
to take seven hours, no signs of damage had been apparent. At
one point, engineers on the ground asked for a second look at a
suspect spot, but astronauts went back over the area with the
camera at a different angle and it showed nothing.

"Everything has gone exceptionally well," NASA spokesman
Rob Navias said.

The painstaking inspection is one of many safety measures
put in place after the fatal Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003,
when a loose chunk of insulating foam at launch damaged the
wing and caused the shuttle to disintegrate on re-entry over
Texas, killing its seven astronauts.

Discovery launched on Tuesday from Florida in the first
shuttle flight since Columbia.

The launch was smooth but not flawless. Video from one of
an array of cameras at the takeoff showed a nick in
heat-protective tiles near the nose landing gear and an
unexplained piece of debris falling away from the exterior fuel


The debris did not strike the shuttle, but the 1-inch (2.5
cm) gouge in the tile would require further study, said flight
operations manager John Shannon.

Because of schedule constraints, Wednesday's inspection
would not include a look at the damaged tile, Shannon said.
That likely would not happen until Friday, he said.

The laser, which will get as close as five feet to the
orbiter, is on a 50-foot (15-meter) extension attached to the
50-foot-(15-meter)long robot arm used on previous shuttle

It can detect minute cracks in the wings and nose cap,
which are subjected to the most intense heat during landing.

The astronauts also will examine tiles around the crew
cabin and tail, but using only a television camera.

Along with the laser and visual inspections, NASA has
installed 176 damage-detecting sensors in the wings.

Tile damage to the shuttle is not unusual, but under new
safety rules NASA must ensure that any problem does not hold
the potential for a Columbia-like disaster.

"It's well documented that we have had 15,000 dings on
shuttles, post-flight," Shannon said.

The shuttle is en route to the International Space Station
where they will hook up 220 miles above the Earth for a week.

Before docking, Collins will park Discovery 600 feet away
and put the shuttle in a slow backflip while station
crewmembers Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips snap photos of
its underside in search of signs of damage.

Since Columbia, NASA has spent more than $1 billion on
safety upgrades and worked to change a culture that
investigators charged had become too casual about risk.

If NASA engineers determine there is dangerous damage to
Discovery, the astronauts could try to repair it with
experimental fixes they plan to test later in the flight.

In the worst case, the crew could take refuge on the
International Space Station and await a rescue flight from
shuttle Atlantis.

Also on Wednesday, astronauts Steve Robinson and Japan's
Soichi Noguchi checked out equipment they will use on three
space walks later in the mission.

Other crew members on the 12-day mission include pilot Jim
Kelly, Charles Camarda, Australia's Andy Thomas and Wendy