CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. -- The dinged heat shield tiles on NASA's shuttle Endeavourperformed much better than expected during the orbiter's landing today andmarked the only blemish on an otherwise flawless spacecraft, the space agencysaid Tuesday.
Slight tiledamage aside, Endeavour is in fine shape after the shuttle's first flightto the International Space Station (ISS) in almost five years, NASA chiefMichael Griffin said.
"Actuallythe orbiter overall was pretty clean," Griffin said. "We had one kindof ugly ding and we paid appropriate attention to it."
Endeavourtouched downat 12:32:16 p.m. EDT (1632:16 GMT) here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to conclude a successful ISS construction flight. The landing completed the overhauledshuttle's first spaceflight since late 2002.
NASAengineers are discussing what typesof modifications, if any, will be required to the shuttle fuel tank bracketthat loosed a 0.021-pound (about one-third of an ounce) piece of foaminsulation during Endeavour's Aug. 8 launch. The debris bounced off a strut tocarve a small ding into Endeavour's belly-mounted heat tiles.
The chippedtile posed no risk to the shuttle or its crew, and weathered the searing heatof reentry remarkably well, NASA said. A first look after landing showed onlyslightly more erosion, not the extensive surface damage predicted by NASAtests, and will be a valuable asset in heat shield analysis, the agency added.
"We'regoing to be able to understand exactly how this stuff performed," BillGerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, in apost-landing briefing. "What is really important is we have kind of abefore and after, which sometimes we haven't had before."
CanadianSpace Agency (CSA) president Laurier Boisvert said Endeavour's successfulreturn meant a great deal to his home country, and not only because the shuttlecarried Saskatchewan-born spaceflyer Dafydd "Dave" Williams. Williamsset a new Canadian spacewalking record during three excursions and almost 18hours of orbital work.
The roboticarm inspection boom and laser tools used to scan Endeavour's dinged tiles wereCanadian in origin and a source of pride for the CSA, Boisvert said.
"It'sprobably the most photographed tile in the world," he added.
Griffin lauded the work of Endeavour'sSTS-118 astronaut crew, which primed the space station for future constructionlater this year.
"It'sgetting to look like a real space station now," Griffin said.
Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Scott Kelly, the13-day mission delivered more than two tons of cargo, additional spareparts, a new starboard-side girder and included the replacement of a broken U.S. gyroscope. The shuttle crew landed a day early to avoid any impacts to their Houston,Texas-based Mission Control by Hurricane Dean, though the storm ultimatelyposed no threat to the NASA center.
"Theyjust rolled with the punches and they did a great job," Gerstenmaier saidof the crew's effort to adapt to changes. "They did a flawless job."
Endeavour'screw included teacher-turned-astronautBarbara Morgan, who made her first flight since joining NASA 22 years agoas the backup to Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe before the ill-fated 1986 Challengermission.
Griffin said Morgan was in good healthafter the spaceflight but required a bit more time to readapt to Earth'sgravity.
With thesuccess of STS-118, the ISS is now about 60 percent complete. NASA plans atleast 11 more shuttle missions set to finish space station assembly by theSeptember 2010 retirement date for its three-orbiter fleet.
"It isan awesome accomplishment that we're in the middle of, we?re not done withit," Griffin said. "Every flight is a hard flight. Every flight is themost important flight, and that will remain so until we're done."
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- VIDEO: Teaching the Future: Teacher-Astronaut Barbara Morgan
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage