Shuttle's Heat Shield Appears Undamaged, NASA Says

HOUSTON — A first look at video from space shuttleAtlantis' external fuel tank revealed no signs of damage to the spacecraft'sheat-resistant underbelly, NASA mission managers said Friday.

Theseven-astronaut crew scanned the heat shield of Atlantis with a sensor-laden extension boom today to complement thediscarded fuel tank's footage. John Shannon, deputy shuttle program manager,said the six-hour inspection of the shuttle's wing leading edges and nose capalso showed no chinks in protective heat-resistant tiles.

"Itshowed absolutely nothing of interest," Shannon said of a preliminary report by NASA specialists. "We had an extremely clean launch and ascent."

Shannon did note, however, that severalsmall pieces of debris were shed during launch — likely small chunks offoam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank. He said the first two harmlesslypopped off within the first two minutes of launch while a third that may havestruck the orbiter just more than seven minutes after liftoff.

"I wouldexpect that we will see no marks at all on the [heat-resistant] tile … fromsomething that releases at that time," Shannon said. Foam insulation shedseven minutes into launch — more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) abovethe Earth — does so at lower speeds because of the lack of air drag.

Detailed heatshield inspections became standard procedures after Columbia broke apart in2003, a tragedy traced back to foam insulation strikingthe underside of the orbiter.

Mike Sarafin,lead shuttle flight director for the STS-122 mission, said specialists arewaiting for data from both the International Space Station (ISS) crew as wellas videos taken from the shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRB) before clearingAtlantis' heat shield for damage.

NASA expectsto get a detailed look at the rest of the shuttle's heat shield Saturday, whenAtlantis meets up with the space station, performs a back flip and circlesaround the orbital outpost. The maneuver allows camera-wielding space stationastronauts to photograph Atlantis' underbelly.

"We'llget our normally really good pictures of the underside of the vehicle,"Shannon said, adding that SRB videos will be recovered after choppy Atlantic Ocean waters calm down on Saturday. "We'll get the cameras off next Wednesdayand have that video and data in hand."

As technicians wait formore launch data, Commander Stephen Frick and the six other astronauts of the STS-122mission are preparing to deliver the European Space Agency's Columbuslaboratory to the space station. NASA expects the shuttle to latch onto theISS around 12:35 p.m. EST (1735 GMT) on Saturday, beginning a busy week of workin space for the crew.

"We'reon track to dock with to the International Space Station tomorrow,"Sarafin said. "That will be the opportunity to deliver a brand new moduleto Peggy Whitson, who's commanding the space station, on her 48thbirthday."

NASA isbroadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed. 

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: NASA's STS-122: Columbus Sets Sail for ISS
  • Test Your Smarts: Space Shuttle Countdown Quiz
  • Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.