Discovery Astronauts Scan Orbiter for Damage

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. EDT

HOUSTON - As the crew of the space shuttle Discovery prepares to bed down for the day, NASA is lauding a nearly glitch-free test of a new orbital boom that gave flight controllers an unprecedented view of the spacecraft.

"We could not be more pleased with how it's all going," said Discovery's lead flight director Paul Hill during a status update here at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC). "All the new hardware is performing as we hoped."

Discovery's STS-114 crew, commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, launched into orbit from Kennedy Space Center on July 26 at 10:39 a.m. EDT (1439 GMT) on NASA's first shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

STS-114 mission specialist Andrew Thomas led today's orbital boom survey, a key component of Discovery's spaceflight, which is aimed at verifying safety modifications to the shuttle. Shuttle pilot James Kelly and mission specialist Charles Camarda assisted in the operation.

The 50-foot (15-meter) boom can be affixed to the end of Discovery's robotic arm to survey the orbiter's sensitive thermal protection areas, such as its wing leading edges, nose cap and heat-resistant tiles. It is tipped with several imaging tools, including a black and white video camera, a laser ranging imager and a laser camera system.

The boom is capable of resolving surface damage or cracks in Discovery's thermal protection system as small as 1/4th of an inch, Hill said.

"We're picking up a good survey," Kelly said as the boom scanned Discovery's nose cap, which experiences temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit during reentry.

Columbia's left wing leading edge was damaged during launch when a piece of external tank insulation foam gouged a hole through the one of the orbiter's heat-resistant reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) panels. That hole allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter the wing during its descent, leading to the vehicle's destruction and the deaths of the seven STS-107 astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003. The Canadian-built orbital boom is designed to scan for such damage and give flight controllers and Discovery's crew a comprehensive picture of the status of their spacecraft.

"You will almost be able to read the serial numbers on the tiles, the images will be so good," Hill said.

There was one minor glitch that delayed the orbital boom survey.

A pan-tilt unit which connects the scanning cameras to the boom itself drifted out of position during an initial sweep of Discovery's right wing, prompting Thomas to periodically reposition the sensor suit during what was typically an automated survey. Flight controllers are assessing whether the drift missed any critical areas, but believe they obtained all relevant imagery.

"It occurred in an area where we have a heck of a lot of overlap," Hill said of the glitch. "My assumption is that we got everything, though the pan-tilt unit slowed us down."

Thomas, Kelly and Camarda were able to make up for the lost time during their survey, NASA officials said.

"You guys did a great job pounding through the survey," astronaut Steve Frick told the crew during the survey.

The boom data will be discussed during a Mission Management Team meeting today, NASA officials said.

Launch debris questions

Hill said that NASA's imaging specialists were still going over video and still images taken during Discovery's launch and paying close attention to a chipped heat-resistant tile near the ship's nose landing gear, as well as other debris caught by a video camera attached to the orbiter's external tank and ground-based radar.

"There are some folks in the imagery world that have found some things they're concerned with on the [external] tank," Hill said. "The tools we took into orbit with us, that we finished using today...will allow us to absolutely know the state of the outside of this orbiter."

Engineers are still poring over images of the chipped tile, and look forward to additional high-resolution views from space station photography expected during a pitch around maneuver when Discovery docks at the International Space Station on July 28, NASA officials said.

In response to one question, Hill stressed strongly that neither he nor NASA were not attempting to play down or gloss over the chipped tile, even though current data examined by engineers suggests it should not be a safety concern.

"The last flight ended in catastrophe and we lost seven friends of ours because of TPS damage," Hill said, referring to the Columbia mission. "So even where we're talking about tile damage that is clearly within capability, that's going to get all of our attention and all of us are concerned about it. But we don't make decisions in spaceflight based on emotion, we make them based on the data and we're looking at the data."

By tomorrow, engineers should have enough data to determine whether they need additional images of the area. Because Discovery's orbital boom was designed to be able to reach nearly every inch of the shuttle's thermal protection system, Thomas could use it to get a close-up look of the chipped tile later in the mission if needed.

"We have not yet been given a request for that," Hill said, adding that should engineers require a boom survey of the chipped tile, a procedure could be worked up while Discovery's crew sleeps on Flight Day 3 in time for Flight Day 4 on July 29. "To get the data to put the boom in the right spot, that's something that's very complicated."

Wayne Hale, NASA's deputy shuttle program manager, told reporters at the briefing that hundreds of imaging specialists are going over much more ascent video, images and other data than ever gathered during a shuttle launch.

"We are absolutely not being overwhelmed," Hale said. "[Data is] coming down exactly on schedule."

Discovery's mission is the first of two test flights for NASA's shuttle program. The STS-121 mission aboard Atlantis is currently slated to launch between Sept. 9 and Sept. 24.

The STS-114 crew is scheduled to go to sleep at about 3:39 p.m. EDT (1939 GMT) in preparations for tomorrow's morning docking at the ISS. Discovery is expected to dock at the ISS at 7:18 a.m. EDT (1118 GMT) Thursday.

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