NASA Tests Options for Shuttle Blanket Repair
An astronaut demonstrates the use of a spacesuit 'darning' needle and stainless steel wire to sew together shuttle thermal blanket material as a possible repair method of the damaged blanket on NASA's shuttle Atlantis.
Credit: NASA/collectSPACE.com.

HOUSTON -- NASA engineers are conducting a series of tests to determine how best to repair a torn heat-resistant blanket on the space shuttle Atlantis.

John Shannon, NASA?s deputy shuttle program manager, said astronauts and engineers on Earth are testing repair options that range from using a medical stapler to what amounts to a spacesuit darning needle to secure the blanket swatch, which ripped free of its mount at the aft end of Atlantis during the orbiter?s June 8 launch.

?They have several different solutions to put the blanket down and keep it down,? Shannon told reporters here at NASA?s Johnson Space Center during a mission briefing.

Wire ties and tools to pin the 4-inch by 6-inch (10-centimeter by 15-centimeter) triangular blanket flap into heat-resistant tiles nearby its location on Atlantis? left Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod are also among the options, said Shannon. Duct tape, it turns out, won?t work in the vacuum of space, he added.

The front runner is the spacesuit needle using a stainless steel wire as thread. But a final decision is expected sometime in the next two days, during which time mission managers will also decide whether to perform the repair during the third STS-117 spacewalk set for Friday or wait until the newly added fourth excursion on Sunday, Shannon said.

While not a threat to the safe return of Atlantis? STS-117 astronaut crew, there is a risk that heat of reentering the Earth?s atmosphere could damage honeycomb-like graphite-epoxy material beneath the torn blanket and require a repair after landing that could be avoided, mission managers have said.

Later this week, NASA engineers will conduct a series of wind tunnel tests and heating studies on mockups of the damaged blanket to evaluate the repair techniques.

Wing sensor reading eyed

Shuttle engineers continue to study a few minor items associated with the rest of Atlantis? heat shield, including a wing sensor reading suggesting the orbiter?s right wing leading edge may have been hit by a piece of orbital debris, Shannon said.

The sensor is one of 88 accelerometer and temperature detectors that sit behind the heat-resistant reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) panels along each of Atlantis? wings. But other nearby sensors did not register similar indications as the original, which would occur in the event of an actual strike, Shannon said.

?What we have seen does not indicate that we have been hit by anything,? he added. ?I think characterizing this as an impact would be premature at this point.?

Similar sensor returns were seen during NASA?s last shuttle flight and were found to be a false report, Shannon added.

However, Atlantis? STS-117 astronauts are already scheduled to perform a second inspection of the orbiter?s heat shield later in their mission, so the area is already one that will be surveyed again.

Known as a late inspection, the scan is a duplicate of the survey performed by the shuttle crew just after launch and is designed to search for any signs of damage from micrometeorites and orbital debris.

The new inspections and shuttle wing sensors were put in place following the 2003 loss of Columbia and its astronaut crew after the orbiter suffered heat shield damage during launch.

Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Rick Sturckow, Atlantis? STS-117 crew is delivering new solar arrays, trusses and a new crewmember to the ISS during a planned 13-day mission.

NASA is broadcasting the space shuttle Atlantis' STS-117 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's video feed.

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