- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — Space Shuttle Discovery’s heat shield looks to be in good condition so far, NASA managers said yesterday, although it will be at least two days before engineers can rule out any possible damage from the program’s first night launch in four years.

“So far so good,” said lead flight director Tony Ceccacci as Discovery’s astronauts wrapped up a meticulous inspection of the shuttle, looking for any possible damage from liftoff.

As expected, small pieces of foam debris and ice fell off Discovery’s external fuel tank during Saturday night’s launch, but they didn’t appear to strike the shuttle, said deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.

Because Discovery was launched in the dark, NASA technicians weren’t able to capture the same sharp photos as they did during the last three shuttle launches. Still, they were able to take better than expected images from the illumination of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and engines during the first few minutes of flight. They also relied on radar, although one out of the three radars failed during the launch.

NASA may have to wait an extra day to look at images taken from the solid rocket boosters. An accident on one of the two ships used in recovering the boosters from the ocean postponed the retrieval by more than a day.

“The team sees nothing of concern at this time,” Mr. Shannon said.

NASA engineers were studying four low-momentum readings from sensors on the leading edge of the shuttle’s wing about two minutes after liftoff.

“I don’t know if they’re strikes. In the past, there’s a lot of folks who think it’s just a shock wave passing over … or there’s some settling,” Mr. Shannon said. “We’ve seen exactly the same thing on the last couple of flights. We don’t know exactly what’s happening.”

The thorough sweep of the shuttle included the wings and nose cap for chips and other damage from foam, a procedure made mandatory after the deadly Columbia accident in 2003.

Discovery fired its engines yesterday to raise its altitude to 216 miles above Earth, nearly level with the International Space Station, where it will dock today. Three complicated spacewalks are planned to rewire the space station from a temporary to a permanent power source.

During its 12-day mission, Discovery’s crew will deliver an $11 million addition to the space lab and bring home one of the space station’s three crew members, German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency. U.S. astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams will replace him, staying for six months.

The mission is one leg of a three-year race to finish construction on the space station before shuttles are retired in 2010. After Discovery’s mission, 13 more shuttle flights are needed to complete the lab.

Saturday’s launch was the first at night since Space Shuttle Endeavour’s flight in November 2002 and only the 29th in darkness of NASA’s 117 shuttle launches.

Saturday’s launch was only the fourth since the Columbia disaster in 2003 and the third of the year. It also was the last scheduled liftoff from pad 39B, which will be modified for new rockets that will take astronauts back to the moon in 2020.

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