Shuttle's return is delayed

NASA worries about piece of debris seen floating away from ship

September 20, 2006|By John Johnson Jr. | John Johnson Jr.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA delayed today's scheduled landing of space shuttle Atlantis for at least a day after onboard cameras showed what looked like a piece of debris drifting away from the spacecraft.

"We saw something," said shuttle program manager N. Wayne Hale Jr. at a news briefing yesterday. "The question is, what is it?"

Atlantis' crew will perform a five-hour inspection of the outside of the craft today, using the shuttle's remote arm, equipped with a television camera.

If the inspection turns up no damage, Hale said, it is likely the shuttle will be cleared to land tomorrow.

But if the inspection turns up a problem, or the lighting is poor, the crew will deploy a more sensitive device, the boom sensor, which has a laser and can scan for tiny imperfections. That extra inspection could force another delay, to a Friday landing.

Cameras captured the image of the small, black object moving slowly away from the spacecraft early yesterday. The camera followed the object for several seconds, but Hale said NASA engineers could not immediately determine its size, mass or even whether it came from the shuttle.

Another piece of debris was spotted by the crew, but NASA said it appeared to be a plastic bag and of no concern.

Hale said he asked the Air Force for help in tracking the black object, but its closeness to the spacecraft could make it difficult for ground-based radar tracking stations to identify it.

Early speculation among NASA's top scientists is that something might have shaken loose from the craft's open 60-foot-long cargo bay when the crew checked out the flight controls by firing up the engines, a procedure that sends a powerful shudder through the craft.

It could be something benign, such as a bit of ice or a plastic spacer between the heat tiles, one of which was seen earlier in the mission sticking out from the underside of Atlantis.

"Or it could be something more critical that we should pay attention to," Hale said at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Debris has become a major concern for NASA since the 2003 Columbia accident, when the spacecraft and its crew of seven were lost during re-entry. A piece of insulating foam from the shuttle's external fuel tank had damaged the craft during launch.

NASA had already been considering waving off today's landing because of bad weather. High winds have hit the central Florida landing site and a thunderstorm swept through last night.

NASA is also trying to figure out what caused electronic monitoring devices inside one of the spacecraft's wings to go off. The devices, known as accelerometers, record impacts to the critical wing leading edges, which are covered with very heat-resistant, but delicate, reinforced carbon material.

Hale said instruments showed eight "events" over a two-minute period.

Atlantis has been inspected several times in orbit, including when it was docked at the space station. It passed every test. "We found nothing," Hale said.

NASA is hoping the debris mystery won't overshadow what Hale called a "spectacularly successful" mission.

Atlantis has enough supplies to stay in orbit at least until Saturday. It also carries four repair kits, two for damage to the leading edges of the wings and two for repair to the tiles that cover the underside of the shuttle. One additional kit is thought to be at the space station.

The repair techniques have been demonstrated on past shuttle flights. They have never been used to patch a damaged spacecraft, however. Astronauts have said in the past that they would prefer waiting for rescue at the space station rather than trusting their lives to unproven repairs.

Returning to the space station raises other issues. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft, carrying a replacement crew and the first female space tourist, was scheduled to dock Tuesday night at the station.

John Johnson Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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