- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — NASA gave Space Shuttle Atlantis the all-clear to come home today after a stem-to-stern inspection prompted by a mysterious flurry of orbital litter found no damage to the ship.

NASA could not say for certain what the five floating pieces of junk were — perhaps a plastic filler strip, maybe a garbage bag. But shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said there was no reason to worry because nothing of any importance was missing from the spacecraft.

“We are cleared for entry. Nothing was found to be missing or damaged on the thermal protection system, the heat shield of the Space Shuttle Atlantis or in fact any other part of the Space Shuttle Atlantis,” Mr. Hale said after two inspections lasting a total of 7 hours. “So we feel we’re very confident that we’re in good shape for a landing opportunity.”

The weather forecast was good for a 6:21 a.m. landing attempt at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Atlantis’ 11-day mission was extended an extra day Tuesday after NASA spotted two mysterious objects in orbit and became worried that something vital broke off the shuttle or damaged the ship’s heat shield or other systems when it came loose.

So Atlantis’ six astronauts spent yesterday using a robotic arm and a 50-foot extension boom to inspect the shuttle. During the inspections, astronauts spotted three additional mystery objects that probably escaped from the shuttle harmlessly, Mr. Hale said.

Damage to Columbia’s heat shield led to its 2003 disintegration during its return to Earth, so NASA is now more cautious about any damage to the shuttle’s tiles or leading edges.

“We’ve seen a new standard in NASA vigilance,” Mr. Hale said.

John Logsdon, a member of the independent board that investigated the Columbia accident, praised NASA for being “prudent” in taking the extra day to make sure everything was safe.

While Atlantis’ crew of six slept, engineers on the ground operated cameras on the robotic arm to check out the cargo bay and flight control systems. Then, when the astronauts woke up, they used the shuttle’s arm for a 4-hour inspection and then the arm-and-boom for a two-hour examination of harder-to-see places.

Mr. Hale said the mysterious objects probably came from the shuttle, and that his best guess is that one piece was probably an orange plastic filler placed in between the tiles that protect the shuttle from the blasting heat of re-entry. He said another object appeared to be a garbage bag.

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