- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - The 12 astronauts circling the Earth got a call from a much higher authority Saturday.

Pope Benedict XVI made the first ever papal call to space. He addressed the shuttle and station crews from the Vatican. Two Italians are on board: Endeavour astronaut Roberto Vittori and International Space Station resident Paolo Nespoli.

The pope said he admired the astronauts’ courage, discipline and commitment. He added that he hopes shuttle commander Mark Kelly’s wife continues to improve. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, his wife, was shot in Tucson, Ariz., in January. Kelly thanked him for his kind words.

The long-distance papal audience was arranged by the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA provided technical support from Houston.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Space shuttle Endeavour’s astronauts took a close, detailed look at a small gash in the belly of their ship Saturday, to ensure their safety when they return to Earth in 1 1/2 weeks.

NASA ordered the inspection during the next-to-last shuttle flight, even though managers said there was no reason to be alarmed by the damage generated by Monday’s liftoff.

The 3-D survey _ normally not needed on a shuttle’s underside _ was carried out just a few hours before an unprecedented VIP call to the orbiting shuttle-station complex.

Pope Benedict XVI was set to make the first papal call to space, phoning the 12 astronauts from the Vatican. Two Italians are on board: one is a member of the shuttle Endeavour crew, while the other is close to ending a five-month stay aboard the International Space Station.

Working from inside, the astronauts used the shuttle robot arm and an extension boom, tipped with lasers and cameras, to hone in on the damage to the thermal tiles. The combined instruments stretched 100 feet and hovered 7 feet from the damage.

The gouge _ spanning two tiles _ measures just 3.2 inches by 2.5 inches. It’s the depth that flight controllers hoped to ascertain with Saturday’s survey, to make certain no repairs were needed. The images were beamed down to Mission Control for analysis; the entire inspection lasted an hour.

Space station cameras actually detected several areas of damage on Endeavour’s underside, right before the shuttle docked to the International Space Station. Only one spot posed concern, between the main landing gear door and the external fuel tank door.

Similar damage was seen on a flight by Endeavour in 2007. That gash turned out to be just an inch deep, and no repair was necessary.

By coincidence, that 2007 mission was commanded by the identical twin brother of Mark Kelly, the astronaut in charge of Endeavour’s present flight. Kelly is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who received a skull implant this past week in Houston. She was shot in the head in January during a political event in Tucson, Ariz.

NASA established the shuttle safety checks following the 2003 Columbia disaster. A hole in the left wing led to Columbia’s destruction during re-entry. All seven astronauts were killed.

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