HOUSTON -- Discovery is poised for a rendezvous with the International Space Station this morning after inspections of the shuttle's heat shielding yesterday turned up no signs of serious damage.
Discovery's astronauts used laser sensors and a camera on a 50-foot boom to examine the nose and wings of the spaceship after Tuesday's launch from the Kennedy Space Center. NASA managers said the shuttle so far appears to be in great shape.
"We didn't see anything with the quick look as the crew was doing the survey that would cause us any concern," said John Shannon, NASA's deputy shuttle program manager.
But, he said, engineers have a lot of work to do as they comb through photos, video footage and other data. Additionally, NASA expects to get important imagery today as the shuttle approaches the International Space Station. Docking is scheduled for 10:52 a.m.
At about 600 feet away, commander Steve Lindsey will guide the shuttle through a slow-motion somersault that will allow space station residents Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams to take images of the ship's tile-covered underbelly.
This will provide the first extensive look at the delicate ceramic tiles that help protect the shuttle during its fiery re-entry through Earth's atmosphere. NASA will not be able to give Discovery a clean bill of health until engineers can examine photos of that critical area.
On its first full day in orbit yesterday, the crew took extensive scans of the spaceship's wings and nose using the boom, which was attached to the shuttle's robot arm. Those regions of the shuttle are covered in a brittle carbon material that can withstand up to 3,000 degrees of searing heat.
Although nothing serious was noted, mission managers saw a few minor imperfections from the boom's camera, including some white spots on one wing that were determined to be bird droppings. They also captured images of a gap filler - pieces of ceramic fabric wedged between the tiles and glued to the orbiter's airframe - protruding a half-inch above two heat-resistant tiles near one wing.
Last year, a spacewalking astronaut plucked a pair of gap fillers from Discovery's belly because of concern the protrusions could cause increased heating during the shuttle's return to Earth. Shannon said this gap filler does not appear to pose a similar threat. Engineers are studying the issue.
Likewise, Shannon said, NASA continues to look at data from Discovery's external tank. But early assessments indicate the tank performed very well, he said.
NASA has made numerous design changes to the tanks since the Columbia disaster in 2003. But three dozen small ramps that engineers determined could shed dangerous pieces of foam flew as-is aboard Discovery's tank. Early indications are that few, if any, of the ramps lost foam.
An area not far from one of the ramps lost what appears to be the biggest piece of debris shed during liftoff. A thin piece of foam measuring about 8 by 10 inches fell off the tank about two minutes and 50 seconds after launch and broke into a half-dozen pieces. But the incident occurred after the point when the shuttle is vulnerable to debris strikes.
"Overall, the tank performance was really outstanding," Shannon said. "We're very happy with the modifications we made [after last year's flight of Discovery], and I think that we collected some really good data."
Michael Cabbage and Robyn Shelton write for the Orlando Sentinel.