Saturday, July 09, 2011

Atlantis crew inspects orbiter heat shields

Four Atlantis astronauts today will inspect perform robotic inspections to make sure critical heat shields weren't damaged during Friday morning's blastoff from Kennedy Space Center, the last by a shuttle.

Mission commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim awoke at 4 a.m. EDT for their first full day in orbit, to the Coldplay tune "Viva la Vida" played for Hurley.

"Good Morning Atlantis!!!! Yesterday’s launch was spectacular!" read notes sent up to the crew.

The notes' cover includes a picture poking fun at the launch pad glitch that stalled Atlantis' launch countdown with 31 seconds to go and nearly scrubbed it. Teams needed extra time to confirm that the "beanie cap" vent arm over the external tank was properly retracted.

In a standard Flight Day 2 procedure implemented after the 2003 Columbia accident, the crew will scan the reinforced carbon-carbon panels covering Atlantis' wing leading edges and nose cap, areas subjected to the  most intense heating during atmospheric re-entry.

Images will be collected by cameras and lasers on the end of a 50-foot boom attached to the shuttle's 50-foot robotic arm.

The survey is scheduled to begin around 8:15 a.m. EDT with the starboard wing, then move to the nose cap and port wing, wrapping up around 2 p.m.

Though routine, the inspection is one of the many tasks during this 12 or 13 mission expected to present more of a challenging for a smaller crew of four people, compared to the usual six or seven.

Ferguson, Hurley and Magnus will opearte the shuttle arm from Atlantis' aft flight deck, while Walheim works on the middeck to prepare for Sunday morning's planned docking at the International Space Station around 11 a.m.

Additional imagery of the thousands of silica tiles lining the orbiter's underside will be collected when Atlantis performs a backflip during its approach to the station. Station crew members will shoot high resolution pictures of the tiles.

Analysts in Houston will take several days to review all the imagery before clearing the heat shields of damage or ordering more detailed inspections of any areas of concern.

The crew was informed after reaching orbit that very preliminary reviews showed no immediate concerns about serious debris strikes during their ascent.

Another inspection with the boom sensor system will be performed after undocking from the station.

Check out more of the upcoming highlights of the final shuttle mission in this NASA TV schedule.

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