Astronauts Check Shuttle For Damage As Discovery Chases International Space Station

Wednesday, October 24th 2007, 8:59 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ Shuttle Discovery chased the international space station in orbit Wednesday as its seven astronauts began a painstaking laser inspection of their ship's wings.

It was the first full day of what NASA considers to be the most complicated space station construction mission yet. The shuttle was to reach the station Thursday.

NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, said after Tuesday's liftoff that the astronauts face a tremendous series of challenges, but noted, ``I can't think of a better start to this mission than what we got today.'' It was the third on-time shuttle launch in a row.

At least six pieces of foam insulation came off Discovery's fuel tank during liftoff, but the debris posed no risk to the shuttle because it was shed after the crucial first two minutes, officials said.

``It's preliminary only, but it did look like a clean ascent,'' Mission Control informed Discovery's commander Pamela Melroy, only the second woman to lead a shuttle crew.

Melroy and her crew used a laser-tipped inspection boom Wednesday to check Discovery's vulnerable wings and nose.

The astronauts checked three wing panels for possible cracks just beneath a protective coating. It's unknown whether cracks could worsen and cause the coating to chip off and make the area more vulnerable to the 3,000-degree heat of re-entry.

The checks are standard since a strike by a slab of fuel-tank foam created a hole in Columbia's wing in 2003, downing the shuttle.

After a lengthy discussion last week, top mission managers deemed Discovery safe for launch even though NASA's own safety group wanted to delay the liftoff for repairs.

A small piece of foam broke off a bracket on Endeavour's fuel tank during the last launch in August, possibly along with ice, and gouged the shuttle's belly. That led to changes to Discovery's fuel tank to prevent dangerous ice buildup.

NASA officials will analyze the images gathered during Tuesday's launch and Wednesday's inspection before clearing Discovery for landing.

The shuttle's primary payload is an Italian-built compartment, about the size of a small bus, that will serve as the docking port for science labs due to arrive beginning in December. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli is personally delivering the pressurized chamber, called Harmony.

During their 1 1/2-week station visit, the astronauts must install Harmony, relocate a giant girder and set of solar wings, extend those solar wings and radiators, and test a thermal tile repair kit. Five spacewalks are planned, which will be the most ever conducted while a shuttle is docked at the station.

Astronaut Daniel Tani will move into the station once Discovery docks. He will replace Clayton Anderson, who will return to Earth on the shuttle after five months in space.

As they prepared for the inspection, Melroy, Tani and astronauts Scott Parazynski and George Zamka hugged and waved into the cockpit camera.

``You all look like you're having way too much fun,'' Mission Control said.

``That would be the STS-120 crew,'' Melroy answered with a laugh. ``We're always having too much fun.''