Endeavour Astronauts Look Over Shuttle's Hull

The seven-man crew of the shuttle Endeavour maneuvered toward the international space station early Wednesday as they spent their first full day in orbit carefully examining the ship for any launch damage.

Endeavour was set to dock with the station late Wednesday to deliver a giant robot and the first piece of a new Japanese lab.

As the shuttle closed in on the orbiting outpost, the crew used a 100-foot laser-tipped boom to inspect its wings and nose for any sign of launch damage.

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The inspection has been standard procedure ever since the 2003 Columbia disaster, in which seven astronauts died.

Flight director Mike Moses said a quick look at the images the astronauts beamed down to Earth revealed no signs of trouble, but engineers will spend Wednesday poring over the data.

In a rare middle-of-the-night launch, the shuttle blasted off with an almost blinding flash. But the darkness meant fewer pictures than usual to look for signs of possible damage to the spacecraft during the climb to orbit.

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NASA knew the nighttime launch would come at a photographic cost. But past successes at preventing the shuttle's fuel tank from losing big chunks of foam insulation during liftoff and the accuracy of heat shield inspections convinced managers the night launch was a good choice.

A new photographic flash system embedded in a cavity in Endeavour's belly helped illuminate the external fuel tank as it dropped away, empty, eight minutes into the flight.

Cameras captured a possible strike to Endeavour's nose 10 seconds after liftoff, but Moses said he wasn't worried because the ship wasn't traveling fast enough at that time to sustain serious damage.

He said it was too early to tell whether the material came off the ship and whether or not it actually struck the shuttle. Engineers will analyze video captured during launch to try to answer those questions.

Additionally, a significant piece of foam or other debris came off Endeavour's tank just over a minute into the flight. It appeared to miss the right wing.

In addition to performing the inspection, the astronauts also prepared their spacesuits for the five spacewalks they plan to perform and gathered the tools they'll need for the rendezvous.

Those were the first major chores of the 16-day flight, the longest space station mission ever planned for a shuttle.

"It was a really good day," Endeavour commander Dominic Gorie said as the crew prepared to go to sleep Wednesday morning.

The three space station residents had to drastically shift their work and sleep hours in order to synch up their schedule with that of the shuttle crew, due to arrive at the orbiting outpost late Wednesday night.

"I'd say good morning, but I don't know what time of day it is," the space station's commander, Peggy Whitson, told flight controllers late Tuesday afternoon.

Endeavour's crew and the three space station residents face a grueling schedule once their spacecraft docks. They will perform five spacewalks, the most ever planned during a shuttle visit.

The spacewalking teams must assemble Canada's robot, Dextre, which was packed aboard Endeavour in nine pieces, and attach a Japanese storage compartment to the space station.

It is the first installment of Japan's massive Kibo lab, which means Hope.

The main part of the Kibo lab will fly on the next shuttle mission in May, with the final installment, a porch for outdoor experiments, going up next year.

"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time, so this is a great honor for us to work with you," Japanese Mission Control radioed Whitson early Wednesday.

"We're glad to have you on board," she replied.