Saturday, August 29, 2009

Live in orbit: shuttle commander back in saddle

Discovery astronauts have awoken for their first full day in orbit after Friday's spectacular launch from Kennedy Space Center seconds before midnight.

A wake-up song piped into the orbiter by NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston was selected by the family of 49-year-old mission commander Rick "C.J." Sturckow, who is making his fourth shuttle flight.

"I'm back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend," sang Gene Autry.

Sturckow, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel, grew up on a ranch in San Diego County.

Today's primary job is an inspection of Discovery's heat shields using a 50-foot boom attached to the shuttle's robotic arm.

The boom is equipped with cameras and laser sensors that will slowly scan the left and right wing leading edges, nose cap and underbelly tiles.

The images will be downlinked to analysts at Johnson Space Center in Houston who will search for any evidence of damage that could have occurred during the nine-minute ascent to orbit.

NASA officials said early Saturday that preliminary looks at launch videos were encouraging, showing no signs that pieces of insulating foam tore away from Discovery's external tank, as they did during Endeavour's July launch (without causing serious damage).

The heat shield scans are scheduled to begin at 6:19 p.m. EDT and take about six hours.

NASA mission commentators reported that two small steering jets near the shuttle's nose will be shut down due to a leak, but the problem will not impact the shuttle's abilit to docking, complete its mission and re-enter Earth's atmosphere entry.

The crew will go to sleep at 5:29 a.m. Sunday to rest of for docking at the International Space Station later that day - on Discovery's 25th birthday.

The shuttle will deliver more than 15,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and science experiments to the station's crew of six.

Mission specialist Nicole Stott will join the station crew for about three months, replacing Tim Kopra.

Also today, Stuckow and pilot Kevin Ford plan two thruster burns to fine tune Discovery's trajectory to the station.

And crew members will check out the spacesuits that will be used on three spacewalks featuring Stott and fellow mission specialists Danny Olivas and Christer Fuglesang of the European Space Agency.

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