CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Endeavour's astronauts unfurled a 100-foot, laser-tipped pole and surveyed their ship for any launch damage Saturday while drawing ever closer to their destination, the international space station.
At least two pieces of debris were spotted Friday night in launch photos, Mission Control reported, and engineers were poring over the images to determine whether anything hit Endeavour.
The spacecraft and its crew of seven were on track to hook up Sunday afternoon with the space station, currently home to three astronauts.
The shuttle was delivering tons 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," shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson observed.
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 lasted 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.
Two pieces of debris were seen trailing Endeavour during liftoff, one at 33 seconds and the other just over two minutes into the flight. The earlier piece was likely a narrow strip of thermal blanket that was yanked off the shuttle during launch, said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team.
The blanket — 12 inches to 18 inches long and 4 inches wide — is believed to have come off the tail of the shuttle, near the orbital-maneuvering engine pod on the left side.
It's an area that does not get too hot during re-entry, so flight controllers are not overly concerned, Cain said. All the same, Mission Control asked the astronauts to photograph the area.
Cain said he had no information on the later piece of debris spotted in launch photos.
Virtually every inch of Endeavour will be photographed with zoom lenses when it approaches the space station late Sunday afternoon. Station commander Mike Fincke ran through his picture-taking checklist with Mission Control on Saturday to make sure he had everything down.
A problem with a radio communication system on Endeavour that doubles as radar could force Ferguson to rely on a backup navigation system for Sunday's rendezvous.
Once Endeavour is docked, the astronauts will begin unloading and installing the approximately 14,000 pounds 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.