NASA orders 'focused' inspection of damaged heat shield tile

CBS News

Only one of seven "areas of interest," shown in yellow, remains under study on the shuttle Endeavour's heat shield. NASA managers Friday ordered a focused inspection to collect additional data. (Credit: NASA TV)
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--The Endeavour astronauts will use an instrumented boom on the end of the shuttle's robot arm early Saturday to make a close-up, "focused" inspection of a gouge in a heat shield tile on the belly of the orbiter that was spotted during final approach to the space station, NASA managers said Friday.

A slightly blurry image of an impact site on the belly of the shuttle Endeavour that will get a closer look Saturday during a focused inpection. (Credit: NASA TV)
LeRoy Cain, chairman of NASA's Mission Management Team, said shuttle pilot Gregory Johnson would oversee computer-assisted maneuvers to put the arm under the shuttle's right side to take high-resolution photos and laser scans of the damage site.

The data will be downlinked to NASA's Damage Assessment Team, or DAT, to determine if Endeavour can safely re-enter Earth's atmosphere as is or whether more analysis or repairs might be needed. Engineers suspect the former, but the inspection was ordered to make sure.

The Endeavour astronauts went to bed shortly before 1:30 p.m. EDT (GMT-4) and are scheduled to wake up to begin flight day six at 9:26 p.m. At 12:35 a.m. Saturday, the space station's robot arm will pull the inspection boom out of Endeavour's cargo bay and hand it off to the shuttle's arm. The actual damage inspection will begin around 2:41 a.m.

"There's nothing alarming here and we're really not concerned," Cain told reporters Friday. "We're doing what we understand and know we need to go do in these scenarios. This is one that we feel pretty confident we're going to be able to clear it once we get some higher fidelity data."

But since engineers don't know that for sure, "we take it in this order," Cain said. "We go get the better data, do the higher fidelity, more accurate, less conservative analysis, get the answer and from that answer determine if there's anything beyond that that we need to do. But our sense is that this is not one that ultimately we're going to be concerned about."

During Endeavour's final approach to the space station Wednesday, the crew of the station photographed the heat shield tiles on the shuttle's belly during a now-routine back-flip maneuver directly below the lab complex. Image analysts spotted seven "areas of interest" that required additional analysis. All of those were cleared for re-entry as is with one exception: a relatively deep gouge in a tile between Endeavour's right-side main landing gear door and a smaller door that covers a liquid-oxygen feed line port.

"Ultimately, we determined that we're going to go do a focused inspection to get some more data on this particular site," Cain said.