Tue, Sep 12, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Shuttle performing well despite four years in the dock

AGENCIES , HOUSTON, TEXAS

Astronauts aboard space shuttle Atlantis conducted a close-up inspection of their ship's heat shield on Sunday as they sailed toward a linkup yesterday with the International Space Station.

"Atlantis looks great," space shuttle deputy manager John Shannon said at a briefing on Sunday, one day after launch.

"We have a really good start to this very complex mission," he said.

Sunday's check of the shuttle's wings and nose with lasers and a sensor-laden boom comes after analysis of launch video on Saturday showed the craft's heat shield appeared to have weathered blastoff in good shape.

The video showed there were no problems from glancing impacts from several pieces of ice and foam that fell from its fuel tank as it climbed toward orbit.

Technicians and imagery experts will continue working for several days to ensure the shuttle sustained no damage during launch. They will study launch video, pictures relayed from the crew's inspection and data collected from vibration sensors inside the shuttle's wings.

Checking for heat shield damage has been a key change in the space shuttle program since the 2003 Columbia accident. Columbia was damaged by a piece of falling foam insulation during launch, which caused it to break apart 16 days later as it headed for a landing.

Seven astronauts aboard the ship were killed and the shuttle program and construction of the space station were put on hold.

The debris seen during the launch on Saturday broke away more than four minutes after Atlantis lifted off. At that point, the shuttle was above most of the atmosphere so the impact of any debris would have had little force to cause damage, Shannon said.

Despite spending the past four years in a hangar, Atlantis was operating well in orbit with just a few mechanical glitches popping up during its first full day in space, Shannon said.

Once the shuttle docked with the space station around 6:45am, the crew planned to work almost nonstop for the rest of the day, transferring a 17.5-tonne addition and preparing for a spacewalk the next day.

It is a very, very busy day with virtually no time for breaks, said flight director Paul Dye.

There was plenty of work to do before docking with the space station on the third day of Atlantis' 11-day mission.

With both vehicles moving at 28,000kph, the tag-up with the station require Atlantis to fire its jets, then maneuver into a 360o pitch so that crew members on the space station can photograph the shuttle's belly.

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