Space station, shuttle link up

Potential problem areas on Discovery will be inspected by astronauts today

July 07, 2006|By JOHN JOHNSON JR. | JOHN JOHNSON JR.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The crew of the shuttle Discovery docked with the International Space Station yesterday and prepared for a "focused inspection" today of several potential problem areas that have cropped up on the shuttle.

NASA officials kept open the possibility of a spacewalk later in the mission to remove two bulging gap fillers, spacers placed between the shuttle's heat-resistant tiles.

On the whole, NASA managers continued to portray the mission and the soundness of the shuttle in glowing terms.

"We have a long way to go on this mission," said John Shannon, deputy shuttle program manager. "So far, it is going great."

As Discovery moved in to dock with the space station, pilot Mark Kelly and Commander Steve Lindsey put the shuttle through a "rotation pitch maneuver," a pirouette that resembles a diver doing a back flip.

The purpose was to present the underside of the shuttle to the space station's two-man crew, which snapped hundreds of photographs.

Those images were being reviewed late yesterday, Shannon said during a news briefing at Johnson Space Center in Houston. But it appeared to be certain that astronauts will be taking a closer look today at the gap fillers and at what looks like a small piece of fabric extending from beneath the nose cone.

The focused inspection will be done with a 50-foot-boom outfitted with a camera.

Last year, when two other protruding gap fillers were discovered, NASA ordered a spacewalk to remove them by hand because they were in sensitive areas where they could cause unstable heating during re-entry that could burn through nearby tiles.

After that mission, NASA replaced thousands of gap fillers, fixing the new ones with a tighter adhesive bond. The two sticking out this time were among those not replaced. They are much farther back on the body of the spacecraft in an area where any protrusions would not be expected to endanger the shuttle on landing.

One of the gap fillers dates to 1982, Shannon said.

Even though NASA doesn't expect the newly protruding gap fillers to be a problem, Shannon said, they will be scrutinized, and engineers will do the appropriate aerodynamic computations to be certain. A spacewalk is an option, he said, if the analysis doesn't turn out the way it is expected to.

The space station and Discovery crews greeted each other with hugs and handshakes yesterday morning.

The shuttle carries 2 tons of equipment and food for the space station. It also will leave behind one of its crew members, European astronaut Thomas Reiter.

One piece of equipment carried by Discovery is an extra oxygen generator, which will allow the station to accommodate a six-person crew.

If the rest of this shuttle mission goes as well as the first part, NASA plans to get back to finishing construction of the space station with a shuttle flight in late August, followed by another in December.

John Johnson Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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