Astronauts Inspect Space Shuttle for Damage
A camera on the space shuttle Atlantis' external tank beamed this view of the spacecraft's heat shield to Earth during its Nov. 16, 2009 launch.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 3:48 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON ? Astronauts aboard NASA's space shuttle Atlantis inspected their spacecraft's sensitive heat shield Tuesday for any signs of damage incurred during launch.

The checkout is a now-standard precaution and NASA has no specific cause for concern after Monday's smooth liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., mission managers said. Commander Charlie Hobaugh and his six-astronaut crew used an inspection pole tipped with laser sensors and cameras to scan the orbiter's wing edges and nose cap for new dings or scratches.

"If there's been any impacts, things that have come off the tank or some spare debris, or something has hit something, we can take a look at it with the sensor packages and try to determine if it's something that is kind of benign or something worth fixing with [a spacewalk]," said mission specialist Leland Melvin in a preflight interview. "And so we'll survey the port wing, the starboard wing and the nose cap and then make sure that everything's safe."

The survey began early Tuesday and was expected to last about six hours, but the astronauts were ahead of schedule. They attached 50-foot (15-meter) inspection boom to the end of the shuttle's already 50-foot (15-meter) robotic arm and used its cameras and laser sensors to scan Atlantis' most sensitive areas.

"It's been very refined, well-scripted, developed over numerous missions, a procedure that we go through now," Hobaugh said. "It's a long day. It's a lot of intensive arm ops obviously but what we do is we rotate our crew members through to keep 'em fresh."

Today's inspection has been part of every shuttle mission plan after the tragic Columbia accident in 2003, when a piece of insulating foam from that shuttle's external fuel tank broke off and struck the orbiter's wing during launch, damaging the heat shield and leading to the loss of the spacecraft during re-entry. Seven astronauts were killed.

Since then, NASA has devised new heat shield inspection and repair methods, as well as modified shuttle fuel tanks to reduce the amount of foam debris during launch. NASA officials said Atlantis' launch looked relatively clean.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said NASA observed three small pieces of foam fall from Atlantis' fuel tank during launch, but that they occurred too late in the liftoff to cause harm.

"They were minor because they were after the time when they can really do damage to the orbiter," Gerstenmaier said after Monday's launch. Nonetheless, engineers plan to pore over the data and video gathered during the launch to be sure.

Atlantis is bound for the International Space Station to deliver two massive carriers filled with spare equipment for the orbiting laboratory. The astronauts plan to spend about 11 days in space, with three challenging spacewalks and complex robotic work scheduled. The two spacecraft are due to dock Wednesday at about 11:53 a.m. EST (1653 GMT).

The astronauts' day on Atlantis began at with a wake-up call at 4:28 a.m. EST (0928 GMT). Mission Control roused the crew with the song "I Can Only Imagine" by MercyMe, a tune selected for shuttle pilot Barry "Butch" Wilmore by his wife Deanna to mark his first career spaceflight.

"What a very pleasant song to wake up to, thank you for playing that," Wilmore radioed Mission Control. "Thanks to my wife for selecting it."

  • SPACE.com Video Show - Riding the Space Shuttle
  • Image Gallery - Shuttle Discovery's Midnight Launch
  • SPACE.com Video Show - Inside the International Space Station 

SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Atlantis' STS-129 mission to the International Space Station with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in Washington, D.C. and Managing Editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.