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The Sciences

To Check Shuttle for Damage, a Zero-Gravity Backflip

Discovery space shuttle backflip

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The space shuttle Discovery docked at the International Space Station this afternoon, two days after its launch through cloudless Florida skies on Saturday. But before the shuttle cozied up to the station and threw open the doors, the pilot guided the shuttle in an elegant backflip, allowing the station’s astronauts to photograph the Discovery‘s belly to check for damage.

This maneuver has become standard over the past five years. However, NASA engineers are particularly eager to get these photos back, because several pieces of foam insulation fell from the shuttle during its launch.

NASA engineers have kept a careful eye on that insulating foam since the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. That disaster was caused by a briefcase-sized piece of foam that broke away from the fuel tank during launch and hit the shuttle’s wing, damaging its heat shield.

But NASA said the Discovery‘s situation seems considerably less dire. About five pieces of insulating foam broke off Discovery‘s external fuel tank during Saturday’s liftoff, and one or two of them may have hit the shuttle. NASA officials said they were not too worried because the foam losses occurred after the crucial first two minutes of the flight and therefore lacked the acceleration to do much, if any, damage. What’s more, the foam fragments looked to be thin and flimsy [AP News].

Even if the foam fragments looked as flimsy as snowflakes, NASA would still instruct the Discovery crew to make a full inspection. Astronauts began the process shortly after liftoff. The shuttle astronauts also conducted a limited inspection of the heat-resistant panels along Discovery‘s wing edges on Sunday using a camera at the end of their spacecraft’s robotic arm. They are expected to retrieve a laser-tipped inspection boom from the station on Monday and perform a comprehensive survey later in the mission to ensure Discovery‘s heat shield is in good shape for landing on June 14 [SPACE.com].

The shuttle delivered the largest component of the International Space Station, a Japanese-built science laboratory the size of a tour bus, as well as some urgently needed gear — spare parts to fix the zero-gravity toilet, which broke several weeks ago.

Image: NASA/JPL

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