Atlantis Shuttle's Heat Shield Looks Good After Second Look

Mission Atlantis: Astronauts Scan Shuttle Heat Shield for Damage
A camera aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis captured this view of the payload bay shortly before the start of the inspection of the shuttle's heat shield. (Image credit: NASA TV.)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A preliminary look at heat shield images relayed to Earth Monday from NASA's space shuttle Atlantis have turned up no apparent damage from orbital debris, mission managers said.

Paul Dye, NASA's lead shuttle flight director for Atlantis' STS-115 mission, said nothing of note jumped out at image analysts as astronauts scanned the orbiter's nose cap and wing leading edges with a sensor-laden inspection boom earlier today.

"I would say the only thing obvious was that everything looked really, really good," Dye told reporters during a mission status briefing. "I would say about 24 hours will give the folks, the analysts, enough time to get the data down, chunk through it, and methodically review it."

Atlantis pilot Chris Ferguson and mission specialists Daniel Burbank and Steven MacLean were scheduled to spend just over four hours inspecting their spacecraft's heat shield, but the actual survey took less time.

"They got started early and they just breezed on through it," Dye said of the STS-115 crew's inspection.

Today's inspection is a retread of a similar heat shield scan on Sept. 10, the results of which also turned up no concerns over the integrity of Atlantis' heat shield.

Now in the ninth day of their planned 11-day mission, Atlantis' STS-115 astronauts are on their way back to Earth after a successful orbital construction flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The six-astronaut STS-115 crew - commanded by veteran spaceflyer Brent Jett - delivered the first new addition to the ISS since late 2002 in the form of a 17.5-ton pair of trusses and new solar arrays.

Atlantis is slated to land here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 5:57 a.m. EDT (0957 GMT) Wednesday after 171 orbits around Earth, though an expected cold front has prompted concerns of thunderstorms, high crosswinds near or above the allowable limit for shuttle landings, as well as a possible cloud ceiling of about 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), according to a weather forecast.

Forecasts for the shuttle's two backup landing strips call for breezy conditions at Edwards Air Force Base in California, while New Mexico's Northrup Strip at White Sands Missile Test Site is unusable due to standing water.

Conditions do improve at both the KSC and Edwards shuttle landing sites on Thursday and Friday. A Thursday landing would occur at about 6:21 a.m. EDT (1021 GMT), NASA said.

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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.