August 12, 2007 in Nation/World

Shuttle to get closer examination

Marcia Dunn Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A pair of spacewalking astronauts installed a new beam on the International Space Station on Saturday as engineers back on Earth scrutinized images of a disturbing gouge in shuttle Endeavour’s heat shield.

The 3-inch gash in the shuttle’s belly will be inspected in greater detail today, when the shuttle crew pulls out its 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom and probes the difficult-to-reach area with lasers.

NASA said late Saturday that a piece of foam came off a bracket on the tank, then bounced off a strut farther down on the tank and shot into Endeavour.

“It was a bad bounce off that external tank strut,” said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. “We had that piece of foam come off and it shot straight up.”

The encouraging news was that the debris was not ice, which would have been denser and potentially more dangerous. It’s possible, however, that some ice was attached to the piece of foam, Shannon said. There was no information on the size of the debris, although Shannon said what came off the tank may have been about the size of a grapefruit.

Foam has come loose from these brackets on previous flights, Shannon said.

“It’s a little bit of a concern to us because this seems to be something that has happened frequently,” Shannon said.

The gouge is an estimated 3 1/2 inches long and just over 2 inches wide.

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