Additional Inspections Show No Damage to Atlantis Orbiter, NASA Says

Additional Inspections Show No Damage to Atlantis Orbiter, NASA Says
A camera on Atlantis' robotic arm captured this image of the shuttle's payload bay and crew cabin on Sept. 20, 2006. (Image credit: NASA TV.)

CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA has found no reason to once-moredelay tomorrow's landing for the space shuttle Atlantis and itssix-astronaut crew after an initial review of imagery from last-minuteinspections today, mission managers said Wednesday.

"We didn'tsee any evidence of any kind of damage," Atlantis' STS-115 entry flightdirector Steve Stich in a status briefing. "So far the inspections are goingwell."

Atlantis'STS-115 crew - commanded by veteranshuttle astronaut Brent Jett - performed two different inspections of theirspacecraft late Tuesday and early today. The inspections, the crew's third ofthe STS-115mission, were scheduled after flight controllers spotted a mysteryobject floating away from the orbiter early Tuesday, prompting a one-daylanding delay.

The crew isnow slated to land at 6:21 a.m. EDT (1021 GMT) Thursday after 186 orbits aroundEarth, followed by a backup landing window one orbit later at 7:57 a.m. EDT(1157 GMT).

"I fullyexpect that, if we find no problem with the [thermal protection system], thatwe'll land tomorrow," Stich said.

Atlantisastronauts began surveying their shuttle's heat shield using cameras on itsrobotic arm Wednesday night at 11:45 p.m. EDT (0345 Sept. 20 GMT) in a 4.5-hourscan that included the orbiter's wing leading edges, tile-covered undercarriageand nose cap. They then conducted a focused inspection of the orbiter's wingedges, nose cap, elevons and tail-mounted speed brake. The survey was completeby about 9:19 a.m. EDT (1319 GMT).

"They soundgood, they sound rested, they sounded eager," Dye said of Atlantis' crew duringtoday's briefing. "They're jumping into procedures that they've never donebefore, and I think they're doing great."

About theonly things that jumped out at image analysts during today's heat shieldinspection were the absence of a protrudinggap-filler and an orange plastic spacer, known as shimstock, that were jutting from between the heat-resistant tiles on Atlantis'belly-mounted external tank umbilical doors, Stich said.

Theharmless protrusions were seen in two earlier heat shield inspections - oneon Sept. 10, a day after launch and anotherMonday following the Sept. 17undocking from the InternationalSpace Station (ISS). Both inspections found Atlantis' heat shield inpristine shape for reentry.

"We knowthe team's working really hard," Jett told flight controllers this morning."These last-minute days can be tough and we know that you're under somepressure."

Jett andhis crewmates delivered a $372 millionpair of trusses and newsolar arrays to the ISS during their 12-day mission, marking the firstmajor addition to the orbital laboratory since late2002.

Trackinga mystery object

Jett andhis crewmates had just put Atlantis through a rigorous, but standard,pre-landing test known as a flight control systems (FCS) checkout to test theelevons and other systems when the initial mystery object was sighted at 2:45a.m. EDT (0645 GMT) Tuesday.

Atlantisastronauts later reported - and photographed - an object though to be a plasticbag later Tuesday, then again spotted what Jett described as a bit ofreflective cloth early Wednesday.

It is notuncommon for small items to float out of shuttle payload bays once their doorsare opened just after launch, though it is uncommon late in the flight, Stichsaid, adding that the flight control system checks to cause considerablevibrations and shudders aboard orbiters before landing.

"We areshaking the vehicle up and perhaps after FCS checkout we knocked a few thingsout of the payload bay," Stich said.

Stichadded that NASA and the Atlantis crew lost nothing from today's inspection,since the poorweather expected to plague a Wednesday landing attempt arrived in forceearly today.

Rainshowers would have prevented Atlantis' from landing during two opportunitiestoday, prompting the shuttle's six-astronaut crew to spend one more day inorbit anyway, he added.

"Todaywould not have been a great day to land," Stich said.

NASA'sSTS-115 Mission Management Team is expected to convene later today, and briefthe media at 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT). That briefing will be broadcast live onNASATV, which is available by clickinghere.

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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.