July 27, 2005

Shuttle astronauts inspect ship for damage

By Irene Klotz

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Astronauts on the space shuttle
Discovery inspected their ship for damage on Wednesday while
imagery experts studied thousands of pictures and videos taken
during the spacecraft's launch.

NASA expects to know by Thursday whether engineers want
additional inspections with the shuttle's new laser-scanning
boom to assure that the ship withstood Tuesday's launch and is
in good shape to return to Earth at the end of its 12-day

Preliminary images found that part of a tile, a component
of the shuttle's heat shield, broke off from the area around
the shuttle's nosewheel landing gear door. The images showed
other debris falling from the craft as well.

The Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia disaster was caused by a piece
of foam insulation that fell off the fuel tank at launch and
damaged the ship's wing. The shuttle disintegrated as it
attempted to fly through the atmosphere for landing, killing
all seven astronauts aboard.

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.

"Even if we're talking about tile damage that is clearly
within the capability (of the shuttle to land), that's going to
get all of our attention and all of us are going to get
concerned about it," Discovery's lead flight director Paul
Hill. "But we don't make decisions based on that type of
emotion. We make decisions based on data."

Astronauts slowly scanned the wings and nose of their
spacecraft with the laser-equipped robot arm 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
Fahrenheit (1,371 degrees Celsius).

Discovery launched on Tuesday from Florida on the first
shuttle flight since the Columbia accident. It is scheduled to
reach the International Space Station on Thursday to deliver
critical supplies.

Before docking, station commander Sergei Krikalev and
flight engineer John Phillips plan to photograph the underside
of the shuttle while Discovery skipper Eileen Collins slowly
flips the ship 600 feet in front of the station.

Since Columbia's flight, 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 shuttle could take refuge on the space station
until a rescue mission could be launched.

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

Also aboard the shuttle are pilot Jim Kelly, Charles
Camarda, Wendy Lawrence and Australia's Andy Thomas.