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Shuttle's Heat Shield Appears Undamaged, NASA Says

HOUSTON — A first look at video from space shuttle Atlantis' external fuel tank revealed no signs of damage to the spacecraft's heat-resistant underbelly, NASA mission managers said Friday.

The seven-astronaut crew scanned the heat shield of Atlantis with a sensor-laden extension boom today to complement the discarded fuel tank's footage. John Shannon, deputy shuttle program manager, said the six-hour inspection of the shuttle's wing leading edges and nose cap also showed no chinks in protective heat-resistant tiles.

"It showed absolutely nothing of interest," Shannon said of a preliminary report by NASA specialists. "We had an extremely clean launch and ascent."

Shannon did note, however, that several small pieces of debris were shed during launch — likely small chunks of foam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank. He said the first two harmlessly popped off within the first two minutes of launch while a third that may have struck the orbiter just more than seven minutes after liftoff.

"I would expect that we will see no marks at all on the [heat-resistant] tile … from something that releases at that time," Shannon said. Foam insulation shed seven minutes into launch — more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) above the Earth — does so at lower speeds because of the lack of air drag.

Detailed heat shield inspections became standard procedures after Columbia broke apart in 2003, a tragedy traced back to foam insulation striking the underside of the orbiter.

Mike Sarafin, lead shuttle flight director for the STS-122 mission, said specialists are waiting for data from both the International Space Station (ISS) crew as well as videos taken from the shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRB) before clearing Atlantis' heat shield for damage.

NASA expects to get a detailed look at the rest of the shuttle's heat shield Saturday, when Atlantis meets up with the space station, performs a back flip and circles around the orbital outpost. The maneuver allows camera-wielding space station astronauts to photograph Atlantis' underbelly.

"We'll get our normally really good pictures of the underside of the vehicle," Shannon said, adding that SRB videos will be recovered after choppy Atlantic Ocean waters calm down on Saturday. "We'll get the cameras off next Wednesday and have that video and data in hand."

As technicians wait for more launch data, Commander Stephen Frick and the six other astronauts of the STS-122 mission are preparing to deliver the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory to the space station. NASA expects the shuttle to latch onto the ISS around 12:35 p.m. EST (1735 GMT) on Saturday, beginning a busy week of work in space for the crew.

"We're on track to dock with to the International Space Station tomorrow," Sarafin said. "That will be the opportunity to deliver a brand new module to Peggy Whitson, who's commanding the space station, on her 48th birthday."

NASA is broadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

Dave Mosher, currently the online director at Popular Science, writes about everything in the science and technology realm, including NASA's robotic spaceflight programs and wacky physics mysteries. He has written for several news outlets in addition to Live Science and Space.com, including: Wired.com, National Geographic News, Scientific American, Simons Foundation and Discover Magazine. When not crafting science-y sentences, Dave dabbles in photography, bikes New York City streets, wrestles with his dog and runs science experiments with his nieces and nephews.