November 16, 2008 in Nation/World

Astronauts inspect shuttle for damage

By MARCIA DUNN Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

This photo released by NASA shows astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper on the middeck of Endeavour on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Endeavour’s astronauts unfurled a 100-foot, laser-tipped pole and surveyed their ship for any launch damage Saturday while drawing ever closer to their destination, the international space station.

At least two pieces of debris were spotted Friday night in launch photos, Mission Control reported, and engineers were poring over the images to determine whether anything hit Endeavour. Mission Control told the astronauts there were no obvious signs of damage.

The spacecraft and its crew of seven were on track to hook up this afternoon with the space station, currently home to three astronauts. The shuttle was delivering tons of equipment for remodeling, including a new bathroom, kitchenette, two sleeping compartments and an unprecedented recycling system for turning urine into drinking water.

The day centered around the shuttle inspections, standard procedure ever since Columbia shattered during re-entry in 2003.

During the afternoon, Ferguson’s crew used the extra-long inspection boom to scrutinize Endeavour’s right wing. The nose was next up, followed by the left wing. The painstaking job lasted well into the evening.

The shuttle wings and nose are especially vulnerable, taking the most heat when a shuttle descends through the atmosphere at the end of a flight. Even a seemingly minor gash could spell doom. Columbia was brought down by a hole in its wing the size of a dinner plate; all seven astronauts were killed.

Two pieces of debris were seen trailing Endeavour during Friday’s liftoff, one at about a half-minute and the other just over two minutes into the flight. Shuttle officials initially thought the earlier piece may have been a narrow strip of thermal blanket that was yanked off the shuttle during launch, but images from the inspection showed no apparent damage, said flight director Mike Sarafin.

Analysts will continue studying images from that area at the tail of the shuttle, near the orbital-maneuvering engine pod on the left side, before reaching any conclusions, Sarafin said.

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