Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Endeavour Astronauts Start Heat-Shield Check

The Endeavour astronauts are starting an extensive survey of shuttle heat shield components to make certain no damage was done during launch that would endanger the spaceship or its crew during atmospheric reentry early next month.

Mission specialist Mike Fincke is using a sensor-tipped boom to scan the 22 composite carbon panels that serve as thermal armor for Endeavour's right wing. The 50-foot boom, equipped with both laser sensors and a television camera, is attached to the end of the shuttle's equally lengthy robot arm.

Pilot Gregory "Box" Johnson is backing up Fincke. The scan of the right wing is expected to take about two hours. The astronauts then will survey the Reinforced Carbon Carbon nose cap of the shuttle. A scan of the left wing will follow.

The thousands of thermal protection tiles that cover the underside of the orbiter will be photographed by astronauts on the International Space Station during the shuttle's final approach to the outpost tomorrow. High-resolution digital cameras with 800-mm and 400-mm lenses will be used to detect any tile damage. The astronauts have rudimentary repair methods that could effectively be used on any minor damage.

NASA sets aside time on the fifth day of a shuttle mission to do a focused inspection if any potential damage requires additional scrutiny. A final inspection is done late in the mission to make sure the shuttle wasn't damaged by micrometeorites or orbital debris during its stay in space.

The inspections have been standard operating procedures since the shuttle fleet returned to flight after the 2003 Columbia accident. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended that NASA provide astronauts with a means of inspecting and repairing shuttles in orbit. Columbia and its seven astronauts were lost on atmospheric reentry after serious wing panel damage went undetected during a 16-day science mission.

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