Preliminary look at shuttle shows nothing wrong

Astronauts used lasers and digital cameras in their examination.

.CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Discovery’s astronauts used lasers and digital cameras Wednesday to examine the shuttle’s wings for any signs of launch damage as they gained on the international space station with every circling of Earth.

The good news was that Discovery’s fuel tank did not appear to lose any significant amount of foam insulation during the crucial first two minutes of flight, said John Shannon, head of the mission management team.

“Overall, the tank performed extremely well,” he said.

More data and analyses are needed, however, before NASA can say with absolute certainty that the shuttle’s thermal shielding made it through the launch damage-free.

The inspection carried out Wednesday is standard procedure, but it’s an even higher priority this time because of questions about possible flaws in three wing panels.

Shannon said a preliminary look at the images revealed nothing of significance, but it will take another few days before experts on the ground finish analyzing everything.

Commander Pamela Melroy and her crew used a 100-foot boom to survey Discovery’s wings and nose, which are exposed to as much as 3,000 degrees during re-entry. The inspection took a little longer than usual because NASA wanted to collect more detailed pictures of the wings, in particular the three suspect panels.

Before Tuesday’s launch, a NASA safety group recommended that the flight be delayed because there may be some cracking beneath the coating on these three panels. But senior managers decided to proceed, saying it was an acceptable risk.

NASA wants to make sure none of the protective coating has chipped away and nothing else is wrong with the reinforced-carbon panels, before bringing Discovery home.

Columbia was destroyed during re-entry 4½ years ago because of a hole in the left wing, left there by flyaway fuel-tank foam.

Just as important will be the hundreds of digital pictures snapped by the three space station residents as Discovery makes its final approach for Thursday morning’s docking. The shuttle will do a slow-motion backflip, exposing its belly.