Archive for Thursday, July 6, 2006

Astronauts find no shuttle damage

July 6, 2006


— Early inspections revealed no major damage to the space shuttle Discovery, NASA said Wednesday after a day of checking out the spacecraft with on-board cameras.

That means that when the shuttle meets up with the international space station this morning it likely won't need emergency repairs while hooked up with the orbital outpost - unlike last year's daring spacewalk fixes.

Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said Wednesday evening that the redesigned sections of the external fuel tank held up well during the launch, and that little if any foam came off those areas.

"We do not have nearly the issues" as compared with Discovery's previous flight, Shannon said. He said there was a sense that overall the shuttle program was back in business.

"It's a great feeling," Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said after a Wednesday evening news conference.

Wednesday's inspection by the astronauts uncovered a thermal tile filler poking about a half-inch out of the belly of Discovery. Shannon said better data should be available today but for now, engineers do not believe the dangling fabric will pose a danger for re-entry or require spacewalking repairs, as it did last summer when two similar strips had to be removed in orbit.

This so-called gap filler dates back to 1982 and is in an area where the thermal tiles are fairly thick, Shannon said. Additional gap fillers might be loose as well and may be spotted by the space station crew when the shuttle closes in for docking, he said.

Photos showed two areas of small foam loss around the controversial ice frost ramps, but the foam loss was too small and too late to be a danger to the shuttle, Shannon said. Last month NASA's safety director and chief engineer recommended against launch until the area around those ramps was fixed. A repair plan still is being designed.

In 2003, a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external tank knocked a hole in a wing during launch, causing Columbia to disintegrate as it returned home for a landing.

And last year, film captured damage during the first space flight after Columbia, requiring a special on-the-belly emergency repair spacewalk.

Engineers will painstakingly go over Wednesday's images of Discovery - and others shot by cameras during Tuesday's launch from various locations - and report any possible losses of foam from the tank or damage points on the shuttle.


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