Astronauts Check Shuttle for Post-Launch Damage as Atlantis Chases Space Station

Atlantis' astronauts spent their first full day in orbit Friday scrupulously checking their ship for any launch day damage, as they steered ever closer to the international space station.

The shuttle was brimming with birthday presents for the station's scientific skipper, Peggy Whitson: a $2 billion European lab that she'll help set up and all kinds of spicy salsas.

Atlantis is due at the space station on Saturday, Whitson's 48th birthday.

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"My present is a new module that we're going to install on board the station," Whitson, a biochemist, said in a broadcast interview. She put in a special request for different kinds of sauces to spice up the space station food. "It gets a little old after being here for several months," she explained.

Her roommate, Daniel Tani, who turned 47 one week ago, couldn't wait to get some fresh shirts. He ended up spending two extra months aboard the orbiting complex after fuel gauge problems grounded Atlantis, his ride home.

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As the shuttle drew closer with every circling of Earth, the seven-man crew inspected its wings and nose for any sign of launch damage, using a 100-foot laser-tipped boom. The images were beamed down to Earth for analysis by engineers; a quick look revealed nothing amiss.

Some pieces of insulating foam fell off the external tank three times during liftoff Thursday, but none was big enough to pose any threat, said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. A small piece may have bounced off Atlantis' belly seven minutes into the flight, but lacked enough force to do any damage, he said.

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The laser inspections have been standard procedure ever since NASA's space shuttles resumed flying in 2005 following the Columbia disaster. Also mandatory: shuttle somersaults right before docking, so the space station crew can photograph every inch of the ship's thermal shielding.

Shannon said the board in the engineering troubleshooting room was blank, the first time he's ever seen it that way.

"We have a long way to go on this mission, but I absolutely could not have asked for a better start to it," he said.

The astronauts' real work begins Sunday. That's when the 23-foot Columbus lab will be removed from Atlantis' payload bay and attached to the space station with robotic cranes. Two spacewalkers will assist in the operation.

Columbus is the European Space Agency's main contribution to the space station.

Twenty-three years in the making, it was supposed to be launched in 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World. But station redesigns and stalled construction, as well as shuttle groundings, led to 16 years of delay.