Discovery’s Heat Shield Gets A Preliminary Clean Bill Of Health

Shuttle Discovery’s fragile thermal protection system reached Earth orbit without significant heat shield damage, based on a preliminary assessment of post-launch imagery, according to Mission Management Team Chair LeRoy Cain

The call came on Feb. 27 — a day after the orbiter docked with the International Space Station for at least a week of assembly activities, cargo exchanges and spacewalks.

NASA’s Catherine Coleman participates in International Space Station cargo transfers. Photo Credit/NASA TV

“That’s great news,” said Discovery commander Steve Lindsey, when informed by Mission Control that his crew will not have to take time from a demanding timeline for additional damage surveys.

The assessment, by ground-based imagery experts, was based on a review of photography from cameras that tracked Discovery’s Feb. 24 lift-off, a post-launch survey by the astronauts of the thermal armoring on the wings and nose, and close-up pictures of the shuttle’s underside that were snapped just before the docking.

The imagery team was expected to take an additional day or two to finish the analysis, Cain said.

The Discovery astronauts spent their first full day at the orbiting science lab transferring cargo to the station from the shuttle mid-deck. Within hours of the linkup, the astronauts used robot arms on the shuttle and station to transfer an external storage rack with a spare radiator panel secured to it from Discovery’s cargo bay to the starboard solar power truss of the orbital outpost.

Meanwhile, the shuttle crew’s power conservation measures have already made possible the addition of at least one extra day to the original 11-day flight plan.

The extra time may go to a commemorative portrait of the space station taken by three of the station astronauts aboard a Soyuz capsule undocked and flown to a distance of 600 feet. Mission managers are expected to reach a decision by mid-week on the photo session, which would be scheduled for March 5.

The first of two mission spacewalks by Al Drew and Steve Bowen is set for Feb. 28. During a six-and-a-half hour excursion, scheduled to begin at 11:18 a.m. EST, the two men will retrieve a bulky ammonia coolant pump.

The pump failed in late July, reducing the station’s power by half through early August. Station astronauts carried out a series of spacewalks to replace the failed pump. The faulty device was left at the worksite on the inboard starboard truss.

Drew and Bowen will move the old pump to a stowage platform on the U.S. air lock They will return to the pump during their March 2 spacewalk to vent the device of residual toxic ammonia.

NASA’s station program would like the pump returned to Earth on STS-135 so that it can undergo a failure analysis. STS-135, which would mark the shuttle program’s last flight, is manifested for a June 28 lift off aboard Atlantis.

However, the fate of the unfunded 11-day mission rests with Congress, which has yet to agree on a fiscal 2011 spending plan beyond March 4.


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