Checkup of shuttle finds little damage

Discovery astronauts get welcome party in Houston

August 11, 2005|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

As the seven Discovery astronauts were welcomed back to Houston yesterday, a preliminary assessment of the shuttle's condition showed that it survived the two-week mission with remarkably little damage.

"It's as clean a vehicle as I have ever seen after a landing," said Dean Schaaf, commander of the team that secures the shuttle while it is still on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Discovery landed at Edwards in the Mojave Desert early Tuesday morning because of bad weather near Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The crew found about 20 dings measuring 1 inch or longer, which "was quite a few less than in the past," according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Alan Brown.

Overall there were about 100 marks, many of them as small as a pin prick - again, far fewer than in the past, he said.

All the dings seen on the ground also were seen when the shuttle was inspected in space, so "there was nothing that dinged it on the way down or during the landing," Brown said.

There was no damage at all to the nose cone or the leading edges of the wings.

During the flight, engineers had been concerned about minor damage to an insulating blanket near the cockpit window of the shuttle. Engineers worried that the blanket could come off during re-entry and damage the shuttle.

They considered a fourth space walk to attempt to repair it but ultimately decided that any such attempt might do more harm than good.

Inspection on the ground showed no new damage to the blanket, Brown said. "It's more frayed or fuzzy than damaged," he said, and it showed no sign of scorch marks from the re-entry.

Engineers will perform further inspections in the next few days, looking primarily at the sides and top of the craft, he said.

About 100 people from NASA had been sent to Edwards over the weekend to prepare for the possibility of a landing there.

Once the landing occurred, about 170 additional employees and manufacturer representatives were dispatched to help with processing. Most were still arriving yesterday afternoon, Brown said, "and we'll begin in earnest [today]."

The crew will work around the clock to check out the shuttle and mount it on top of the modified Boeing 747 that will carry it home to Kennedy.

Brown said it would probably take nine or 10 days total for the turnaround.

NASA estimates the cost of transferring a shuttle from Edwards to Kennedy at about $1 million.

More than 700 Houston residents and workers at Johnson Space Center welcomed the astronauts back to the city yesterday. The crew members returned to Houston on Tuesday, but they spent a day in seclusion with their families before the public ceremony.

The crowd that filled the vast hangar at the Johnson Space Center waved American and Japanese flags and clapped loudly as the astronauts took the stage.

The Japanese flags were for rookie astronaut Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

"In the last 2 1/2 years, we have been through the very worst that manned space flight can bring us," NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin told the crowd. "Over the last two weeks, we have seen the very best."

Astronaut Stephen Robinson addressed the crew's impatience with the long launch delay caused by the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia on its re-entry in February 2003, which killed all seven of Columbia's crew members.

"I don't think any crew has ever been more happy to launch than we were," Robinson said. "It's incredible what we have gone through, and look at where we are today. We had an absolute blast up there."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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