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NASA Eyes Debris Hits to Shuttle Heat Shield

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Better late than never. NASAcelebrated the tardy launch of the space shuttle Endeavour late Wednesday andis looking into several bits of debris spotted during the spacecraft?s liftoff.

A few pieces of debris fell from the shuttle's external tankduringthe launch, though it's too early to tell whether they may have damaged theorbiter.

"The bottom line is we saw some stuff," saidEndeavour's mission management team chair Mike Moses after launch. "Someof it doesn?t concern us, some of it, we just can't really speculate on rightnow. But we have the tools in front of us, and the processes in front of us togo clear the vehicle for entry. No real worries there, we just got to wait andsee what happens."

Mission managers will pore over high-resolution images takenfrom the ground and cameras mounted on the shuttle to investigate any possibleharm incurred by Endeavour's sensitive heat shield tiling.

About eight or nine separate debris pieces were seen to fallin initial imagery, including some in the sensitive time period after launchwhen debris would be moving at speeds that could harm the shuttle, said NASA?sspace operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier. Though this may be more than duringsome other recent missions, that may have been because of favorable lightingconditions, he said.

Some slight nicks were seen in the black coating on theshuttle's underbelly in early images, though those shouldn't pose any danger tothe shuttle, Gerstenmaier said.

"We had really good visibility today, good lightingconditions," Gerstenmaier said. "So of all the flights we've seenwith this good lighting conditions I'd say we probably saw more events on thisparticular tank, but we haven?t seen some other tanks that have been launchedin the evening and in dark."

NASA has kept a close watch on the health of its spaceshuttle heat shields since tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia and itsseven-astronaut crew in 2003. A piece of external tank foam debris struckColumbia?s wing during liftoff and punched a hole in the heat shielding on itsleft wing, leading to the shuttle?s loss during re-entry.

Since then, astronauts perform a now-standard inspection ofthe shuttle's underbelly twice on every mission.

The first survey by Endeavour?s crew will come tomorrowusing a sensor-tipped pole. When Endeavour arrives at the space station, itwill steer in a pattern called the rendezvous pitch maneuver to allowastronauts aboard the station to take detailed pictures of its underbelly tocheck for damage.

Overcoming delays

NASA took advantage of a break in Florida's volatile summerweather to launch Endeavour after a string of storms and a gas leak kept themission grounded for more than a month.

"It took a lot of patience a perseverance to gethere," Gerstenmaier said. "We had a great launch today. We wereready. The weather finally cooperated."

Commander Mark Polansky plans to lead Endeavour'sseven-member crew on a 16-daymission to the International Space Station to install an outdoor scienceporch on the Japanese Kibo laboratory and vital spare parts.

"The mission is very challenging in front of us,"Gerstenmaier said. "The five EVAs, the robotic activities, will take theabsolute best that the teams have."

The exposedresearch porch will complete the massive $1 billion Kibo complex, the maincontribution to the International Space Station by the Japanese AerospaceExploration Agency (JAXA).

"This is an exciting and historic day for JAXA,"said Kuniaki Shiraki, Executive Director of JAXA. "I feel great pleasureat this successful launch."

SPACE.com is providing continuous coverage of STS-127with reporter Clara Moskowitz at Cape Canaveral and senior editor Tariq Malikin New York. Click herefor live mission updates and SPACE.com's NASA TV video feed. 

 

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