- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — Life in space returned yesterday to as close to normal as it has been since the Columbia disaster more than three years ago.

After the Space Shuttle Discovery docked with the International Space Station, the orbiting outpost was fully staffed with three crew members for the first time since 2003. European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter arrived on the shuttle for a six-month stay. The news for Discovery was also reminiscent of more carefree days: NASA found no major problems with the shuttle’s heat shield.

Pictures taken by the space-station crew as Discovery approached uncovered no serious concerns with the thermal tiles, said deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon. He called that “somewhat of a surprise, but a very pleasant surprise.” As of last night, NASA’s ground team had analyzed many of the 352 digital images.

The pictures revealed a protruding thermal-tile filler on the shuttle’s underside, and engineers were assessing whether the flaw posed any risk for re-entry. A small piece of fabric was also a little loose behind the nose.

“Overall, it was a great look at the vehicle, and we’re struggling a little bit to find areas to go look at with our focused inspection” set for today, said Mr. Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.

The biggest piece of foam insulation to come off the external fuel tank was 12 inches by 14 inches and was no more than an inch thick, Mr. Shannon said. It was well within safety limits in size and because it fell later in the launch, he said.

After a lunchtime hatch opening, both crews — seven on the arriving shuttle and two on the station — exchanged hugs and handshakes and relished the trouble-free flight. Then they started to transfer more than 5,000 pounds of supplies from the shuttle to the space station.

“Everybody’s having fun,” American astronaut Jeff Williams, who has been on the station since March 31, radioed back to Earth. “I don’t see a sad person in the crowd.”

On the ground, NASA officials happily noted the lack of problems 220 miles above the Earth.

“It’s boring to us that it’s quiet,” said lead flight controller Tony Ceccacci. “But it’s a good thing. It means that everything is going well.”

Even though the mission was progressing smoothly, the control center had not returned to a sense of normalcy, Mr. Ceccacci said.

“It’s more of a sense of, ‘Hey, the things we’ve done to make the … tank better are working,’ ” he said.

Before Discovery docked with the station, commander Steve Lindsey flew the shuttle into a back-flip maneuver so the space station crew could take photographs of the tiles on the belly of Discovery.

Engineers were looking for signs that hard insulating foam from the shuttle’s external tank hit the shuttle during launch. Damage from falling foam led to Columbia’s destruction in 2003, when all seven astronauts died after fiery gases entered a breach in a wing during re-entry.

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