ORLANDO, Fla. - The crew of the shuttle Discovery is getting an extra day in space.
With future shuttle flights grounded indefinitely, NASA decided yesterday to extend the mission so Discovery's astronauts can do more maintenance work on the International Space Station and transfer surplus supplies such as paper, pens and laptop computers.
"We'll sure appreciate getting that extra day," said Bill Gerstenmeier, space station program manager.
Earlier, astronauts Stephen Robinson and Soichi Noguchi, armed with a high-tech caulking gun and putty knives, went for a space walk, spending nearly seven hours testing shuttle repair techniques and working on the space station.
NASA finished analysis of Discovery's heat-protective tiles and thermal blankets yesterday and declared them in good shape for the eventual ride home. But the ship is not officially cleared for its landing - now targeted for Aug. 8 - because engineers are examining imagery and other data on the condition of the wings and two regions where filler material between tiles might be sticking out a bit. "In terms of surface area, we've probably cleared 90 percent" of the shuttle's exterior for landing, said Wayne Hale, deputy shuttle program manager.
The flight is the first since shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas on its return home in 2003 after a piece of foam came off the ship's external tank during launch and damaged its wing. Seven astronauts were killed.
Cameras on Discovery captured footage of foam also breaking free from its external tank, but NASA has concluded that the biggest - and therefore most dangerous - chunk of insulation did not hit the orbiter.
Hale said Discovery has operated flawlessly in space and showered kudos on the crew's performance.
Robinson and Noguchi took center stage yesterday, emerging from Discovery's airlock shortly before 6 a.m. At the time, the ship was soaring more than 200 miles over Central Asia.
Their first task involved patching up cracks and gouges in deliberately damaged samples of shuttle tiles and the carbon panels that cover the wing edges. The patched-up samples will be brought back to Earth for extensive testing.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.