Space shuttle Endeavour’s astronauts unfurled a 30m, laser-tipped pole and surveyed their ship for any launch damage on Saturday while drawing ever closer to their destination, the international space station.
At least two pieces of debris were spotted on Friday night in launch photos and engineers were poring over the images to determine whether the debris — or anything else — hit Endeavour.
The spacecraft and its crew of seven were on track to hook up yesterday afternoon with the space station, currently home to three astronauts. The shuttle was delivering tonnes of equipment for remodeling, including a new bathroom, kitchenette, two sleeping compartments and an unprecedented recycling system for turning urine into drinking water.
“It’s always a great day to be in space,” said Christopher Ferguson, shuttle commander.
The day centered around the shuttle inspections, standard procedure ever since Columbia shattered during re-entry in 2003.
During the afternoon, Ferguson’s crew used the extra-long inspection boom to scrutinize Endeavour’s right wing. The nose was next up, followed by the left wing. The painstaking job was expected to last well into the evening.
The shuttle wings and nose are especially vulnerable, taking the most heat when a shuttle descends through the atmosphere at the end of a flight. Even a seemingly minor gash could spell doom. Columbia was brought down by a hole in its wing the size of a dinner plate; all seven astronauts were killed.
Mission Control spotted two pieces of debris trailing Endeavour during liftoff, one at 33 seconds and the other just over two minutes into the flight. There was no immediate indication that the debris — most likely foam insulation or ice from the external fuel tank — slammed into the shuttle, but engineers needed to make sure.
To gather even more clues, Mission Control asked the shuttle astronauts to check an area at the tail of the shuttle, near the orbital-maneuvering engine pod on the left side, where a thermal blanket may have been yanked off during launch.
Virtually every centimeter of Endeavour would be photographed with zoom lenses when was to approach the space station late yesterday afternoon.
Station commander Mike Fincke ran through his picture-taking checklist with Mission Control on Saturday to make sure he had everything down.
Once Endeavour is docked, the astronauts will begin unloading and installing the approximately 6,350kg of home-improvement equipment. It’s all crucial if NASA is to expand the size of the station crew from three to six by next summer.
The space station currently has one kitchen, one bathroom and three bedrooms. Endeavour’s delivery will transform the orbiting outpost into a two-kitchen, two-bath, five-bedroom home.
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