- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, satisfied that a 4-inch gap in a heat-protecting blanket would not cause any problems, readied itself for what NASA called a delicate ballet with the International Space Station.

The shuttle will enter a weeklong embrace today with the orbital outpost.

Atlantis‘ seven astronauts spent much of yesterday on a mandatory inspection of the shuttle’s delicate heat tiles, outer edges and blankets for problems similar to the kind that caused the fatal Columbia accident in 2003. No glaring problems were reported.

But late Friday and early yesterday, the crew spent extra time using a robot arm to look at a gap in a thermal blanket on the left side of the shuttle. The gap, about 4 inches wide, is the result of an unusual fold in the blanket — not a debris hit which caused Columbia’s fatal problem, NASA spokeswoman Lynette Madison said.

The area does not get hotter than 700 degrees Fahrenheit during the shuttle’s return to Earth and is not a place where NASA is usually concerned about potentially fatal problems, she said. Still, engineers were using photos to create a three-dimensional model of the gap just in case.

“They don’t think it’s much of a concern,” Miss Madison said.

As part of the normal day-after-launch tile inspections, astronaut Patrick Forrester used the shuttle’s robot arm and a boom extension to examine its wings and outer edges.

Atlantis‘ crew was given an extra half-hour to sleep yesterday morning, then awoke to the song “Big Boy Toys” by Aaron Tippin.

Atlantis‘ seven-man crew was closing the distance to the space station by about 800 miles every 90-minute orbit. Atlantis is scheduled to dock with the space station at 3:38 p.m. today.

Before the docking, the shuttle will maneuver in what NASA officials often call a delicate ballet, a procedure that has appeared effortless in 20 previous tries, even though it is risky.

“Two vehicles weighing 230,000 pounds going 17,500 mph, it’s tough stuff,” Mission Management Team leader John Shannon told the Associated Press.

Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow will move the shuttle until it is 600 feet below the station and then make the shuttle turn a 360-degree backflip in just nine minutes. The last few feet of the docking close so slowly that Atlantis will get only an inch closer to the station every second.

After the shuttle and space station connect, they will stay locked until June 17.

During the 11-day flight, the astronauts will deliver a new segment and a pair of solar panels to the orbiting outpost. They plan three spacewalks — tomorrow, Wednesday and Friday — to install the new equipment and retract an old solar panel.

Today, astronaut Clayton Anderson will replace astronaut Sunita Williams as the U.S. representative aboard the space station, and Mrs. Williams will return to Earth aboard Atlantis. She has spent the past six months in orbit.

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