Astronauts to focus on possible foam damage before Endeavour docks with space station

Published 4:32 pm Friday, August 10, 2007

NASA engineers will pay close attention as the space shuttle Endeavour maneuvers toward the international space station on Friday as they try to determine whether foam insulation that broke off the fuel tank damaged the ship.

Mission Control woke the crew Friday morning to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, a dedication from Commander Scott Kelly’s daughters, Samantha and Charlotte.

“Thanks for the great inspection yesterday. Everyone is very pleased with your great work on the survey!” Mission Control told the crew in a daily briefing document. “We are all set for rendezvous. Have fun!”

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On Thursday, schoolteacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan and other members of Endeavour’s crew conducted a fastidious inspection of the shuttle’s most vulnerable areas, in a search for possible damage.

Nine pieces of foam insulation broke off Endeavour’s fuel tank during liftoff Wednesday evening, and three pieces appeared to strike the shuttle, said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. None is believed to have been big enough to cause critical damage, he said.

Foam damage has been of particular interest to NASA since a chunk pierced the space shuttle Columbia’s left wing, leading to its catastrophic re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.

On Friday, Kelly was scheduled to guide Endeavour slowly toward the space station until they are separated by 600 feet. Then Endeavour will make a giant backflip so station crew members can zoom in for pictures of its belly and send them to Houston for analysis.

The first foam fragment came off at 24 seconds after liftoff and appeared to hit the tip of the body flap. The second was 58 seconds after liftoff with a resulting spray or discoloration on the right wing. The third came almost three minutes after liftoff, too late to cause any damage to the right wing.

The most worrisome is the one at 58 seconds.

“Whether it caused damage or not, we will find out in great detail” during Friday’s rendezvous, Shannon said Thursday. “The report initially was that you got a spray of debris from this area and, of course, that brings up images of Columbia and the spray you saw there, and I would tell you this was not even remotely of the same magnitude.”

The crew spent most of Thursday using Endeavour’s robot arm and an extension boom to search the shuttle’s wings and nose cap for damage. Working from the cockpit, Morgan and her crewmates slowly swept the laser- and camera-tipped boom while engineers on the ground looked for cracks or holes.

The meticulous survey has been standard procedure ever since the Columbia disaster. The 50-foot boom, attached to the shuttle’s 50-foot robot arm, was created expressly for the job.

“Hey, it’s great being up here,” Morgan said late Thursday in her first televised update from space. “We’ve been working really hard, but it’s a really good, fun kind of work.”

After Kelly completes Endeavour’s backflip Friday, the shuttle will snuggle up to and connect with the space station, while both vessels travel at 17,500 miles per hour.

Endeavour’s crew will then unload its major cargo — a 2-ton truss that will become part of the space station’s backbone.

NASA hopes to keep Endeavour in orbit for a full two weeks. The shuttle is equipped with a new system for drawing power from the space station. If it works, mission managers plan to extend the flight from 11 days to 14 days.

Morgan, 55, a former elementary schoolteacher from Idaho, was Christa McAuliffe’s backup for the inaugural teacher-in-space flight aboard Challenger in 1986. McAuliffe never made it to space; she was killed along with her six crewmates just over a minute after liftoff.

NASA invited Morgan into the astronaut corps in 1998. Now, finally in orbit, she plans to answer questions next week from schoolchildren in at least one state — Idaho — and is flying 10 million basil seeds for eventual distribution to students and teachers.

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