Shuttle Discovery Headed for Space Station, Inspection on Tap

Debris appears to strike the exterior of Space Shuttle Discovery following launch on Feb. 24, 2011.
Debris appears to strike the exterior of Space Shuttle Discovery following launch on Feb. 24, 2011. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Space shuttle Discovery is chasing the International Space Station one day after blasting off on one last mission before NASA retires the storied reusable space plane.

Discovery's six-astronaut crew will spend today (Feb. 25) inspecting heat shield panels along the shuttle's wing edges and nose cap for any signs of dings or damage that may have been caused by falling debris during their launch. [Photos: Shuttle Discovery's Last Launch]

Video from launch cameras did show several pieces of foam insulation fall from Discovery's fuel tank during its 8.5-minute launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday, but NASA officials said the debris events occurred too late in the flight to cause any concern. A piece of foam the size of a sheet of paper reportedly fell free, officials said.

"It's probably a piece of foam about 8 by 10 inches that comes off, but that's well after the area of concern from an impact-to-the-orbiter standpoint," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief.

Heat shield surveys have been a standard part of every NASA shuttle flight since the 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew due to wing damage.

For their survey today, Discovery astronauts will use sensors on a 50-foot (15-meter) inspection pole attached to the end of the shuttle's robotic arm to inspect the spacecraft. Images and video will be relayed to NASA's mission control center in Houston for review.

Discovery is flying an 11-day mission to deliver a humanoid robot and storage room to the International Space Station. The shuttle is due to arrive at the space station tomorrow (Feb. 26) at about 2:19 p.m. EST (1919 GMT).

The mission is Discovery's final flight in space. After this flight, Discovery – the most flown of all NASA shuttles – will be retired and eventually sent to a museum for public display. NASA is retiring all three of its winged orbiters this year to end the 30-year space shuttle program.

You can follow Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Visit for complete coverage of Discovery's final mission STS-133.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.