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Astronauts check space shuttle for damage

Written by: Staff
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HOUSTON, Sep 11 (Reuters) Astronauts aboard space shuttle Atlantis conducted a close-up inspection of their ship's heat shield as they sailed toward a linkup on Monday with the International Space Station.

''Atlantis looks great,'' space shuttle deputy manager John Shannon said at a briefing Yesterday, one day after launch. ''We have a really good start to this very complex mission.'' yesterday's check of the shuttle's wings and nose with lasers and a sensor-laden boom comes after analysis of launch video on Saturday showed the craft's heat shield appeared to have weathered blastoff in good shape.

The video showed there were no problems from glancing impacts from several pieces of ice and foam that fell from its fuel tank as it climbed toward orbit.

Technicians and imagery experts will continue working for several days to ensure the shuttle sustained no damage during launch. They will study launch video, pictures relayed from the crew's inspection and data collected from vibration sensors inside the shuttle's wings.

Additional video from cameras mounted on the shuttle's twin solid fuel boosters should be available by Tuesday, Shannon said.

Checking for heat shield damage has been a key change in the space shuttle program since the 2003 Columbia accident.

Columbia was damaged by a piece of falling foam insulation during launch, which caused it to break apart 16 days later as it headed for landing.

Seven astronauts aboard the ship were killed and the shuttle program, including space station construction, was put on hold.

The debris seen during Saturday's launch broke away more than four minutes after Atlantis lifted off. At that point, the shuttle was above most of the atmosphere so the impact of any debris would have little aerodynamic force to do damage, Shannon said.

Despite spending the past four years in a hangar, shuttle Atlantis was operating well in orbit, with just a few mechanical glitches popping up during its first full day in space, Shannon said.

The shuttle and its six-member crew are scheduled to spend 11 days in space on a challenging mission to install two solar arrays on the half-built, 100 billion dollars space station.

''Tomorrow is a very big day in the life of the International Space Station,'' said deputy station program manager Kirk Shireman.

Atlantis was scheduled to arrive at the outpost at 6:46 a.m. EDT (1616hrs IST) and spend the next six or seven days hooking up the new 372 million dollars power module and other equipment.

Three spacewalks are planned during the flight, which is the first of at least 15 planned missions to complete the station before the shuttles are retired in 2010.

REUTERS AD RN0558

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