Atlantis astronauts inspect shuttle for damage
HOUSTON, Sep 10 (Reuters) Shuttle Atlantis astronauts today guided a sensor-laden robot arm along the outside of their spacecraft to check for damage after launching on a flight to restart construction of the International Space Station.
NASA executives said pieces of ice and foam from Atlantis' fuel tank glanced off the spacecraft several minutes after take-off from Florida on Saturday, but they believe no harm was done.
Television shots from the arm slowly scanned the surface of Atlantis as astronauts looked for nicks in the vulnerable heat shield that protects the shuttle during return to Earth.
The painstaking inspections with lasers and cameras attached to the robot arm are now a routine part of shuttle flights after the Columbia disaster in 2003.
Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it returned to Florida on February 1, 2003, after a 1.67-pound (756-gram) piece of fuel tank insulating foam struck its wing and broke the heat shield during launch.
The seven Columbia astronauts were killed and the shuttle program, including space station construction, was put on hold.
NASA has spent more than 1 billion dollar on safety upgrades to fix the flyaway foam problem and, after two flights to test the changes, believes the spacecraft can fly safely, with minimal foam loss expected during the rock and roll of launch.
The fuel tank is jettisoned from the shuttle a few minutes after launch and falls back into the ocean.
The debris seen during yesterday's launch broke away more than four minutes after Atlantis lifted off, or at a time when it could strike the shuttle with little force.
''Not only am I not alarmed, I'm really at ease after looking through this video,'' Hale told reporters after reviewing video from the launch.
The six astronauts on Atlantis are on their way to the space station on the first flight to resume assembly of the half-finished 100 billion dollars outpost.
They are scheduled to arrive tomorrow, bringing with them a bus-sized, 372 million dollars truss that contains the space station's second set of solar arrays.
They will conduct three spacewalks during the mission.
With just four years to finish space station construction before the shuttles are retired, NASA was anxious to get Atlantis flying.
Atlantis must leave the station by September 18 before the arrival of a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying two new station crew members and Iranian-born American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to fly as a tourist to the station.
Atlantis is scheduled to return to the Kennedy Space Center on September 20.
Crew members are commander Brent Jett, 47; pilot Chrisb Ferguson, 45; flight engineer Dan Burbank, 45; lead spacewalker Joe Tanner, 56; Canadian space agency astronaut Steve MacLean, 51; and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, 43.
REUTERS SY KN1611