First Look Finds Shuttle Heat Shield in Good Shape

First Look Finds Shuttle Heat Shield in Good Shape
The space shuttle Discovery's robotic arm with the attached boom extension is moved into position shortly after completion of the heat shield inspection on Oct. 24, 2007. Discovery's STS-120 crew launched toward the ISS a day earlier. (Image credit: NASA.)

HOUSTON -An early look at imagery of NASA?s space shuttle Discovery and its discarded fueltank has found the orbiter?s heat shield to be in good shape one day afterlaunch, mission managers said Wednesday.

Discovery?sseven-astronaut crew scannedthe spacecraft?s wings and nose cap with a sensor-tipped inspection boomtoday while engineers on Earth studied imagery of the shuttle?s Tuesday liftoffand its jettisoned fuel tank.

?Thepreliminary indication is that there is nothing that anyone is concerned aboutat all,? said John Shannon, head of Discovery?s STS-120 mission management team.

Shannon said a complete analysis of the heatshield inspection should be completed by week?s end, when it can be combinedwith high-resolution images of Discovery?s belly-mounted tiles that will be taken byastronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Shuttle commanderPamela Melroy will guide Discovery through an orbital flip before docking atthe ISS early Thursday to allow the station?s Expedition 16 crew to photographthe shuttle?s undercarriage.

An earlyanalysis of Discovery?s fuel tank found that some modifications designed tolimit foam loss appeared to be a success, Shannon said, adding that about sixpieces of debris seen in launch video occurred too late to pose any risk to theshuttle.

?Overall,the tank performed extremely well,? Shannon said.

NASA hascontinually worked to limit the amount of foam debris during shuttle launchesafter a piece damaged the Columbia orbiter?s heat shield in 2003, leading tothe loss of the spacecraft and its crew during landing.

Melroy andher crewmates spent a bit more time than usual inspecting Discovery?s heatshield to get a clearer view of heat-resistant panels lining its wing leadingedges.

Before the shuttle?slaunch, an independent NASA engineering group recommended that the agency replacethree of the panels after finding possible defects in their exterior coating. Missionmanagers, however, found Discovery fit to fly and believe that any significant degradationin the panels would turn up in the data gathered from today?s inspection.

Discovery?sSTS-120 crew will delivera new orbital room dubbed Harmony during a planned 14-day missionto the ISS. Once completely installed, the Italian-built Harmony module willserve as the docking port for European and Japanese laboratories. During theirmission, shuttle astronauts also plan to relocate a massive solar array segmentand swap out one member of the station?s Expedition 16 crew.

Discoveryis scheduled to dock at the ISS on Thursday at 8:35 a.m. EDT (1235 GMT).

?It?swonderful to be back in space again and I?m looking forward to getting back tothe ISS tomorrow,? said Discovery mission specialist Scott Parazynski, who is making hisfifth spaceflight on the STS-120 mission. ?It should be a really great day.?

NASA is broadcastingDiscovery's STS-120 mission to the International Space Station live on NASA TV.Click here for mission updatesand NASA TV from

  • Video Interplayer: Delivering 'Harmony' with NASA's STS-120 Mission
  • Test Your Smarts: Space Shuttle Countdown Quiz
  • Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage

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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.