April 19, 2006

Next shuttle crew to inspect for debris damage

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The next space shuttle
crew will use a sensor-laden boom to scan their ship's wings
for damage from tiny meteorites and bits of space junk, a NASA
spokesman said on Wednesday.

The procedure, which will be conducted near the end of
Discovery's planned 12-day flight, could become standard for
all remaining shuttle missions before the fleet is retired in

Only one shuttle has flown since the 2003 Columbia
disaster. Columbia was lost and its seven crew members killed
during re-entry due to wing damage caused by a piece of foam
insulation that fell off the shuttle's fuel tank during launch.

"Doing a late inspection is one of the ways that you
increase the likelihood that you have a clean vehicle," said
NASA spokesman Kyle Herring of the Johnson Space Center in
Houston. "It's the length of time in space that drives up the
risk of impacts."

If the inspections turn up any dents, holes or other
damage, the shuttle crew could attempt in-flight repairs,
depending on the location and the severity of the damage,
Herring said.

Primarily, however, the inspection will allow engineers to
quantify a risk that has never been nailed down. Space shuttles
have previously returned to Earth with obvious, though minor,
debris damage.

After the loss of the Columbia, NASA developed tools and
techniques to scrutinize the ships prior to atmospheric
re-entry. The board that investigated the disaster also
identified micrometeorite and orbital debris impacts as an
ongoing flight risk.

Additional work planned during Discovery's mission prompted
managers to place on hold a spacewalk designed to test
materials to plug holes in damaged wing panels during flight.
NASA now plans to conduct the spacewalk only if the shuttle has
enough supplies to stay in orbit for an extra day.

NASA is targeting Discovery's launch for July, though the
agency is still analyzing fuel tank design changes to prove
they are safe.

The fleet was grounded again after more foam insulation
fell off the tank during Discovery's July 2005 liftoff.