Monday, August 31, 2009

Live in Orbit: Heat shields look good so far

NASA mission controllers told shuttle Discovery's crew that some of the spaceship's most critical heat shields have been found to be in good condition, with no sign of damage sustained during Friday's launch or the first days in orbit.

The reinforced carbon-carbon material, or RCC, covering the wing leading edges and nose cap are exposed to searing heat approaching 3,000 degrees during re-entry through Earth's atmosphere. Those areas were inspected for damage Saturday night, the day after Discovery's launch from Kennedy Space Center.

Chris Ferguson, an astronaut communicating with the shuttle crew from NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, said pictures of thousands of heat-resistant tiles covering the orbiter's underbelly are still being analyzed.

The pictures were taken from the station as Discovery approached Sunday, during a back flip called the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, or RPM.

"The RCC looks good for entry," said Ferguson. "We are still taking a look at the imagery from the RPM, and we'll get back to you hopefully by the end of today with regard to the tiles, so it's good news. Thought we'd pass it along."

"That's great news, Houston, we appreciate the update," replied Discovery commander Rick "C.J." Sturckow.

"Sure thing," said Ferguson.

NASA TV commentators said a ruling on the remainder of the heat shield could come by 1 a.m. Eastern time.

If any apparent damage needed further inspection, the work would be done on Flight Day 6, which begins Wednesday afternoon.

A "late" inspection will be performed after Discovery departs the station.

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