Endeavour Astronauts to Scan Shuttle Heat Shield

Endeavour Astronauts to Scan Shuttle Heat Shield
NASA's space shuttle Endeavour launches into space on Aug. 8, 2007 on the STS-118 construction mission to the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA.)

Astronautsaboard NASA's space shuttle Endeavour will scan their orbiter's vital heatshield today for any signs of damage following their successful Wednesdaylaunch.

Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Scott Kelly, Endeavour's seven STS-118 astronauts willspend their first full day in orbit performing a meticulous survey of theshuttle's wingedges and nose cap.

"Theprocedures for this have all been automated over the last couple of missions,"said Matt Abbott, NASA's lead shuttle flight for Endeavour's STS-118 flight, ofthe inspection. "We've really evolved into a very efficient and effectiveway of scanning for any damage due to the ascent environment."

Endeavour'sSTS-118 crew launchedlate Wednesday on a construction mission to the International SpaceStation. Kelly and his crewmates are hauling some 5,000 pounds (2,267kilograms) of cargo, spare parts and a new addition to the station'sstarboard-side truss to the orbital laboratory.

Anup-close look

NASA analystswill study the images and data from today's heat shield scan to determine thehealth of Endeavour's heat-resistant carbon composite panels and tiles. Thesurvey is a now-standard activity for space shuttle crews since NASA returnedits orbiter fleet to flight after the 2003 Columbia accident.

STS-118mission specialists Tracy Caldwell and Rick Mastracchio are expected to begintoday's survey at about 12:21 p.m. EDT (1621 GMT) using Endeavour's robotic armand a 50-foot (15-meter) extension boom tipped with sensors.

"Weuse the robotic arm with that boom on the end of it and basically look at thewhole leading edge of the wings and the nose ? to make sure that we haven'ttaken any kind of hits of any sort that would cause us a problem for entry,like on Columbia," STS-118 mission specialist BarbaraMorgan, a teacher-turned-astronaut who will also aid in the survey."There are quite a few of us doing this job."

Shuttlepilot Charlie Hobaugh will also aid in the heat shield scan, which is expectedto run about six hours, mission managers have said. If any areas of concern arefound in the survey, the shuttle crew has time set aside on Sunday for afollow-up inspection, they added.

Camerasmounted to Endeavour's external tank caught between four and five small piecesof debris falling away form the orbiter after its late Wednesday liftoff, butlate in the flight when the particles would not fly fast enough to causesignificant damage, NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said afterthe launch.

NASA haskept a close watch on any debris shed during shuttle launches since 2003, whena chunk of fuel tank insulation foam fell free during the launch of Columbiaand breached the orbiter's left wing-mounted heat shield. The resulting damagedled the loss of the orbiter and its seven-astronaut crew.

Since then,NASA has redesigned shuttle fuel tanks to reduce the amount of foam debrisduring liftoff and instituted in-flight inspections to verify the integrity oforbiter heat shields.

NASA is broadcasting Endeavour'sSTS-118 mission live on NASA TV. Clickhere for mission updates and SPACE.com's NASA TV feed.

  • VIDEO: Teaching the Future: Teacher-Astronaut Barbara Morgan
  • VIDEO: Endeavour's STS-118 Mission Profile
  • Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com 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 Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, 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 Space.com 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.