NASA: Extra Heat Shield Inspection Unlikely for Shuttle Discovery

NASA: Extra Heat Shield Inspection Unlikely for Shuttle Discovery
Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson (left) welcomes STS-120 commander Pam Melroy aboard the International Space Station after the shuttle Discovery docked on Oct. 25, 2007. The spaceflyers are the first female spacecraft commanders to fly at the same time. (Image credit: NASA TV)

HOUSTON – Astronauts aboard the spaceshuttle Discovery will likely not have to perform a focused inspection of theirspacecraft’s heat shield, NASA said Thursday.

NASAshuttle engineers poring over recent data and images of Discovery’s heatshield have yet to find concerns that would warrant a second look at the orbiter’sheat-resistant tiles of wing edge panels, though mission managers will make thefinal decision as early as Friday.

AstronautTony Antonelli, serving as spacecraft communicator in Mission Control here atthe Johnson Space Center, radioed the good news to Discovery’s STS-120crew, which is preparing for the first of five record-tying spacewalksoutside the International Space Station (ISS). NASA’s orbiter projectteam plans to recommend that mission managers not take time from the crew’sbusy schedule this week for the extra heat shield inspection, he said.

“Ohman, that is fantastic news,” Discovery commander Pamela Melroy replied. “Wesure appreciate it. Obviously, it’s been a question that’s verymuch on our minds.”

Analysisstill under way

Mission managers had set aside about threehours on Saturday for Melroy and her crew to revisit any suspect areas inDiscovery’s heat shield using sensors at the tip of a 50-foot (15-meter)extension of the shuttle’s robotic arm.

JohnShannon, head of NASA’s mission management team for Discovery’sflight, told reporters that engineers were about 90 percent complete with theiranalysis of a Wednesdayscan of Discovery’s wing edges and nose cap, and had yet tofind cause for concerns. A similar analysis of high-resolution images taken ofthe shuttle’s belly-mounted tiles as it dockedat the ISS earlier today was still under way, he said.

“Noone has seen anything that has caused any alarm or concern at all,” Shannon said of Discovery. “It’s a pretty clean vehicle.”

A smallpiece of ice that shook free from a fuel tank pipe and glanced off aft-mountedtiles as Discovery ignited its engines during a Tuesday launch also posed norisk to the orbiter, he added.

NASA haskept a close watch on shuttle heat shield integrity since 2003, when foamdamaged the Columbia orbiter’s wing leading to the loss of the spacecraftand its crew during landing.

In additionto now standard inspections just after launch, shuttle crews perform focusedscans if required and also make one final survey - dubbed a “lateinspection” - before landing to check for signs of damage frommicrometeorites or space debris.

Spacewalkon tap

Melroy saidthat without the extra heat shield inspection, she and her crew can focus theirattention on installing and outfitting the Harmony module. Formerly known asNode 2, the Italian-builtpressurized module will serve as the anchor for future European andJapanese laboratories at the ISS, and is the first new room to be added to thestation since 2001.

Discovery spacewalkersScott Parazynski and Douglas Wheelock will step outside the ISS early Fridayand, working alongside robotic arm operators inside the station, help install Harmonyto the outpost’s Unity module.

The planned6.5-hour excursion will mark the first of five planned during the STS-120 todeliver the new node, relocate a massive solar power tower, prime the ISS forfuture expansion and test shuttle repair techniques.

“We’repretty excited to hear about that because it’ll give us more time withNode 2,” Melroy said of the plan to skip the focused inspection. “Wejust can’t wait to get inside.”

NASA is broadcastingDiscovery's STS-120 launch and mission operations live on NASA. 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.