As the Space Shuttle Endeavour heads for a July 17 docking with the International Space Station, NASA mission managers are poring over photos and data to determine extent of the July 15 launch damage to Endeavour's heat shields. The spacecraft took multiple debris hits from what are likely to be pieces of foam flaking off Endeavour's external fuel tank during the initial minutes of the launch from Cape Canaveral.
After studying video of the launch, NASA determined Endeavour suffered "some debris incidents" less than 2 minutes after the launch. Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses reported, "These looked like individual small hits that just took the top coating off." Moses cautioned against drawing any initial conclusions until mission personnel on the ground and the Endeavour crew inspected for damage July 16.
Heat shield damage has been a particular concern for NASA since the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated returning to Earth after a 2003 mission, killing all seven astronauts aboard. The cause of the disaster was later traced to a chunk of foam off the external fuel tank striking the Columbia's left wing 82 seconds after blastoff.
"The bottom line is we saw some stuff. Some of it doesn't concern us, some of it, we just can't really speculate on right now," Moses said in a post-launch briefing. "But we have the tools in front of us, and the processes in front of us to go clear the vehicle for entry. No real worries there, we've just got to wait and see what happens."
While NASA studies the videotape of the launch, the Endeavour crew will inspect the craft with an on-board robotic arm outfitted with a sensor system. Once at the ISS, Endeavour will execute a flip to allow the crew to take more photos and video to assess the status of the craft.
Endeavour is now scheduled to arrive at the ISS July 17 and return to Earth July 31. Over the course of the mission, five spacewalks are scheduled to unload and install Japan's Kibo outdoor laboratory, a literal "front porch" for the ISS allowing for space-exposed science experiments. The mission is second longest in shuttle history.
The mission also more than doubles the number of humans in space, with the seven-person Endeavour crew joining the space station's current population of six astronauts. All five space agencies involved in the ISS-United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe-will have representatives at the space station.