July 5, 2006

Discovery crew inspects shuttle for damage

By Irene Klotz

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Astronauts aboard space shuttle
Discovery conducted a painstaking inspection of their
spacecraft on Wednesday, using a sensor-laden robotic arm to
look for damage after launch from Florida on a mission critical
to the shuttle program's future.

NASA executives said flecks of insulating foam flew off the
orbiter's problem-plagued fuel tank during Tuesday's Fourth of
July takeoff, but that Discovery looked to be in good shape.

The shuttle's seven crew members spent their first full day
in orbit scanning vulnerable parts of the ship's heat shield
for any sign of damage from possible debris impacts during
Tuesday's liftoff. Foam shedding from the fuel tank triggered
the 2003 Columbia disaster. The problem reoccurred during the
first post-Columbia mission last year.

"Overall, the tank performance was really outstanding,"
flight director John Shannon told reporters in a briefing late
on Wednesday.

Before Discovery's flight, NASA engineers removed two long
foam wind deflectors from the tank, changed insulation around
heater wires and extended coverings over metal brackets that
previously had been shielded by the deflectors.

Overall, the U.S. space agency spent $1.3 billion over the
last three years to fix the fuel tank and make safety upgrades
to the shuttle, which included the sensor system to look for
damage. It was first used on last year's flight. "We're very
happy with the modifications we made," Shannon said.

NASA needs a successful mission to resume construction work
on the International Space Station, which has been on hold
since the Columbia accident and will require 16 shuttle flights
to complete. Another accident or serious problem could ground
the shuttle fleet permanently.

Engineers were still reviewing video and photographs taken
during liftoff that showed small pieces of insulation popping
off the tank as Discovery rocketed into space. But the bits of
foam flew off when the shuttle already was so high in the
atmosphere that they posed little risk of damaging the
spacecraft, NASA officials said.


Columbia was hit by a 1.67-pound (756 gram) chunk of foam
that damaged its wing during launch. As the shuttle attempted
to return to Earth for landing, superheated atmospheric gases
blasted inside the wing, ripping it apart. Seven astronauts
died in the accident.

NASA redesigned the tank, but a 1-pound (453 gram) piece of
foam fell off when Discovery was launched in July 2005 on a
test flight. The debris did not strike the shuttle, but NASA
grounded the fleet again for additional repairs. Tuesday's
launch was only the second flight since the accident.

In addition to launch photography, the shuttle astronauts
and the space station crew will be scrutinizing Discovery to
make sure it is safe for the plunge back into Earth's
atmosphere. The first part of the inspection was completed on
Wednesday the crew using the sensor-laden robot arm, or boom,
to scan the ship's wings and nose cap.

Shannon said engineers saw nothing of concern, but that
analysis would continue for several days. Streaks on one of the
wings, seen in NASA's televised broadcasts of the inspection,
were determined to be bird droppings, and posed no threat to
the shuttle.

The next survey will be performed by the space station crew
as the shuttle approaches the space station for docking on
Thursday. Stopping about 600 feet before the station, Discovery
Commander Steve Lindsey will flip the shuttle backward so
station commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeffrey
Williams can take high-resolution images and video of black
ceramic tiles on the ship's belly.

The shuttle is scheduled to dock at the station at 10:52
a.m. EDT for an eight- or nine-day stay. Discovery is carrying
badly needed supplies and equipment to the space station.