HOUSTON – Early inspections revealed no major damage to the space shuttle Discovery, NASA said Wednesday after a day of checking out the spacecraft with on-board cameras.
That means that when the shuttle meets up with the international space station Thursday morning it likely won't need emergency repairs while hooked up with the orbital outpost — unlike last year's daring spacewalk fixes.
Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said Wednesday evening that the redesigned sections of the external fuel tank held up well during the launch, and that little if any foam came off those areas.
"We do not have nearly the issues" as compared to Discovery's previous flight, Shannon said. He said there was a sense that overall the space shuttle program was back in business.
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"It's a great feeling," Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said after a Wednesday evening news conference.
Wednesday's inspection by the astronauts uncovered a thermal tile filler poking about a half-inch out of the belly of Discovery.
Shannon said better data should be available Thursday but for now, engineers do not believe the dangling fabric will pose a danger for re-entry or require spacewalking repairs, as it did last summer when two similar strips had to be removed in orbit.
This so-called gap filler dates back to 1982 and is in an area where the thermal tiles are fairly thick, Shannon said. Additional gap fillers might be loose as well and may be spotted by the space station crew when the shuttle closes in for docking, he said.
Photos showed two areas of small foam loss around the controversial ice frost ramps, but the foam loss was too small and too late to be a danger to the shuttle, Shannon said.
Last month NASA's safety director and chief engineer recommended against launch until the area around those ramps was fixed. A repair plan is still being designed.
Engineers are nowhere near finished poring over 70 minutes of video that astronauts shot using an extended boom armed with a laser and cameras to inspect Discovery's delicate reinforced carbon wing and nosecone.
It took Discovery's crew more than six hours to get 70 minutes of video because they had to move the boom slowly so not to bump the fragile shuttle skin.
In 2003, a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external tank knocked a hole in a wing during launch, causing Columbia to disintegrate as it returned home for a landing.
And last year, film captured damage during the first space flight after Columbia, requiring a special on-the-belly emergency repair spacewalk.
Engineers will painstakingly go over Wednesday's images of Discovery — and others shot by cameras during Tuesday's launch from various locations — and report any possible losses of foam from the tank or damage points on the shuttle.
So far the list of "areas of interest" for possible damage is empty, lead flight director Tony Ceccacci said in an early afternoon news conference.
"We have a very clean vehicle," Ceccacci said.
Clean except for what looks like powerful bird droppings.
The first video of the right wing of Discovery showed whitish splotches on the black coating. When Ceccacci saw that in Mission Control, he said he laughed.
That's because three weeks earlier he had noticed the same splotches on Discovery as it sat awaiting launch. He said they looked like bird droppings from a distance of about 10 feet.
"We didn't touch anything if that's what you're asking," Ceccacci told reporters, drawing a big laugh.
Ceccacci said the imagery experts will study the splotches to be sure they're harmless. If that's what they are, "it'll burn up," during the return from space, he said. There wasn't enough heat during launch to get rid of the residue.
He also said that a prelaunch problem involving a thruster heater should be fixed by Thursday morning when it's needed for the delicate dance of docking the shuttle with the space station. The two will stay connected at least until July 14.
The seven-member Discovery crew awoke early Wednesday to sounds of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," sometimes referred to as the black national anthem.
"That one is particularly dear to my heart because ... after the day of our nation's independence, it's very fitting because it reminds us that anyone and everyone can participate in the space program," astronaut Stephanie Wilson, only the second black woman in space, radioed to Mission Control.
The mission for Discovery's crew is to test shuttle-inspection techniques, deliver supplies to the international space station and drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter for a six-month stay.
Astronauts Piers Sellers and Fossum plan to carry out two spacewalks, and possibly a third, which would extend the 12-day mission by a day.