Endeavour Astronauts Scan Shuttle Heat Shield for Damage

Shuttle Endeavour's Heat Shield in Good Shape
Ground-based cameras caught this view of what appears to be a strip of thermal blanket insulation falling away during the shuttle Endeavour's Nov. 14, 2008 launch on the STS-126 mission. (Image credit: NASA)

Astronautsaboard NASA?s space shuttle Endeavour inspected their spacecraft?s heat shieldfor damage Saturday while engineers on Earth tackled minor communicationsglitches as the orbiter heads toward a weekend rendezvous with theInternational Space Station.

Shuttleastronauts used a laser-tipped inspection boom to scan Endeavour?s wing edges andnose cap for launch debris damage. They took extra time to take a close look atthe base of the shuttle?s left rear engine pod, where part of an insulatingblanket apparently ripped free during Endeavour?s Fridaynight launch.

The lostblanket is likely one of two pieces of debris spotted during Endeavour?sliftoff and reported to the crew by Mission Control late last night, said LeRoyCain, chair of the mission?s management team, in a status briefing. The blanketis less than an inch thick, between 12 and 18 inches (30-45 cm) long and 4inches (10 cm) wide, and not in an area that gets too hot during re-entry, headded.

?This isnot an area that is of great concern to us in terms of losing a blanket,? Cainsaid.

Endeavouris due to dock at the space station on Sunday at 5:13 p.m. EST (2113 GMT) todeliver a new station crewmember, two new bedrooms, a second kitchen, extrabathroom, exercise gear, and a water recycling system that filters urine andsweat back into drinkable water. As they approach, astronauts aboard thestation will conduct a photographic survey of Endeavour?s heat shield as well.

NASA haskept a close eye on shuttle heat shield health the loss of theshuttle Columbia and its astronaut crew in 2003. A piece of fuel tankinsulation broke free during that shuttle?s launch and slammed into itswing-mounted heat shield, causing it to burn up during re-entry. Astronauts nowroutinely inspect their spacecraft?s heat shield just after launch, beforedocking at the space station and just before landing.

So far,Endeavour?s wing edges and nose cap have shown no obvious damage, but a team ofspecialists will spend the next few days poring through the inspection resultsto be sure, Cain said.

Meanwhile,engineers on Earth are working through two unrelated glitches with Endeavour?smain radio communications antenna, which appears to have separate hardware andsoftware woes keeping it from working normally.

Cain saidthat the antenna doubles as radar tool during shuttle dockings at the spacestation. But Endeavour can use a backup star tracking system in its place ifthe glitches bog the radar function down during the shuttle?s planned spacestation arrival tomorrow.

Commandedby veteran spaceflyer Chris Ferguson, Endeavour?s seven-astronaut crew isflying a planned15-day mission to the station to make repairs and install vital equipmentdesigned to double the outpost?s crew size up to six people next year. Fourspacewalks are planned to clean up an ailing solar array gear damaged by metalshavings and grinding.

NASAwelcomed the crew to their first full day in space earlier today with the song?Shelter? by Xavier Rudd, a long-distance dedication for Ferguson from Earth.

?Always agreat day to be in space,? Fergusonsaid.                                                             

NASA isproviding live coverage of Endeavour?s mission on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com?smission coverage and NASA TV feed.


Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

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.