Astronauts Inspect Shuttle for Damage
A view of the Tranquility node in the payload bay of space shuttle Endeavour during the STS-130 crew’s first full day in space on Feb. 9, 2010, a day dedicated to heat shield inspections.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated Feb. 9 at 8:10 a.m. ET.

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour inspected spacecraft Tuesday to search for any signs of heat shield damage as they head to the International Space Station.

The shuttle blasted off Monday at 4:14 a.m. EST (0914 GMT) from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The six-astronaut crew, led by commander George Zamka, is bound for the space station to deliver a new room and space observation deck for the orbiting laboratory.

The heat shield scan is a normal precaution to ensure that the vehicle was not hurt by any foam debris falling from the shuttle's external tank during liftoff. Preliminary video does not indicate cause for concern, mission managers said.

NASA's spaceflight operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier said cameras mounted on Endeavour's fuel tank revealed some instances of foam insulation loss, including one event about two minutes into the launch in which a larger piece peeled free, but appeared to miss the spacecraft.

"It's probably about a quarter-inch thick, maybe about a foot or so long," Gerstenmaier said. "It didn't appear to impact the orbiter and we see no damage to the orbiter. It's something similar to what we've seen before."

Another event was seen at about the eight-minute mark, he said.

The shuttle's heat shielding helps protect the orbiter from the scorching temperatures of re-entry when the vehicle plunges back through Earth's atmosphere to return to the ground. The meticulous scan will help make sure that the insulation is intact and the vehicle is safe to land.

The inspections have been a standard part of shuttle missions after the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew in 2003. A piece of foam debris damaged that orbiter's heat shield during launch, leading to its destruction during re-entry.

Shuttle flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho said that an early look at Endeavour?s heat shield has turned up nothing of note, but more reviews are planned to be sure.

Endeavour and its crew are slated to dock at the station on Feb. 10 at 12:09 a.m. EST (0509 GMT). They are planning for a busy 13-day spaceflight, including three spacewalks, to install the new module and observation dome on the orbital outpost.

Because of the timing of the shuttle's launch, Endeavour's STS-130 crew will be working the overnight shift and sleeping during the day. The astronauts awoke late Monday and worked well into the wee hours of Tuesday to perform the inspection using a sensor-tipped inspection pole to sweep the sensitive heat shield panels lining the orbiter's wing edges and nose cap.

Mission specialists Kathryn Hire and Nick Patrick led the scan.

"Flight Day 2 inspection is a highly choreographed set of maneuvers with the space shuttle?s robot arm holding a long boom and tracing backwards and forwards along the leading edges of each wing," Patrick said in a preflight interview. "It requires a fair amount of diligence because although the robot arm is being flown by the computer, you have to monitor it carefully enough that you could take over and stop it with a few seconds? notice in case it goes astray because, of course, the thermal protection system that we?re inspecting is very fragile and we don?t think it would withstand a blow from the robot arm."

A similar scan will be performed near the end of Endeavour's flight to look for dings from space junk and micrometeorites.

While some crewmembers are concentrating on the inspection, the other astronauts will spend their second day in space unpacking materials that had been stowed for liftoff and getting ready to arrive at the space station early Wednesday.

?So far, the crew has been doing very well on orbit,? Alibaruho said. ?We?re looking forward to rendezvous and docking.?

?               Video - Endeavour's Mission: Space Windows and Rooms

?               Video - Behind the Scenes of Endeavour's STS-130 Mission

?               Images - Space Shuttle's Midnight Launch is providing complete coverage of Endeavour's STS-130 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik and Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.