Shuttle Atlantis looking good in damage check
HOUSTON, Sep 10 (Reuters) Astronauts today used a sensor-laden robot arm to check for heat shield damage to shuttle Atlantis and NASA said all looked well so far.
The crew, on a flight to restart construction of the International Space Station, guided the arm up and down the spacecraft's surface in a painstaking inspection that is now a routine part of shuttle flights after the Columbia disaster in 2003.
NASA executives said pieces of ice and foam from Atlantis' fuel tank glanced off the spacecraft several minutes after take-off from Florida yesterday, but lead shuttle flight director Paul Dye said television pictures from the scan had shown no obvious damage.
''The data needs to be interpreted, but what we've seen looks good so far,'' he said in a briefing at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
''This has been an unusual shift (at Mission Control) because I have not seen a single problem with the vehicle,'' Dye said.
NASA engineers still must closely examine the images gathered by an array of lasers and cameras on the robot arm before Atlantis receives a clean bill of health.
Surface damage is critical because shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Florida on February. 1, 2003 after a 756-gram piece of fuel tank insulating foam penetrated the heat shield on its wing 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 dollars 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.
SPACEWALKS PLANNED The six astronauts on Atlantis are on their way to the space station on the first flight to restart 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, which is the first of at least 15 planned flights to complete the station before the shuttles are retired in 2010.
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 Kennedy Space Center in Florida on September. 20.
Crew members are commander Brent Jett, 47; pilot Chris 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 PKS PM2219