Atlantis Crew Look For Signs Of Damage

video still, Atlanits 9/9/2006
AP Photo
Atlantis' six astronauts began inspecting the space shuttle's thermal skin for damage early Sunday as they soared toward the international space station.

NASA managers said hours after Saturday's launch that there was no obvious damage to Atlantis during liftoff. Carrying a 17½-ton addition, Atlantis and its crew were scheduled to arrive at the space station on Monday to restart construction of the orbiting space lab.

Construction of the space station has been on hold since Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing seven astronauts on their return to Earth in February 2003. Since then, NASA has struggled to find ways to prevent the breakaway of hard foam chunks like those that had fatally damaged Columbia's wing during liftoff.

Atlantis has four years to finish the construction project and retire the shuttle, reports CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood.

The crew awoke to a version of "Moon River" sung by Audrey Hepburn in the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a request of commander Brent Jett's wife.

"It really is a beautiful day up here," Jett said after the wake-up greeting. "We're awake and ready to get to work with the inspection."

More than 100 cameras were focused on Atlantis during liftoff to capture any signs of foam breaking off its external fuel tank, the problem that doomed space shuttle Columbia. NASA's cameras spotted three possible hits — two small foam streams and one ice chunk — but they came so late that the debris wasn't moving fast enough to do much damage.

Still, the imagery review was preliminary. NASA hoped to get a better look of the spacecraft's nose cap and wings from the crew using the shuttle's 50-foot robotic arm, attached to a 50-foot boom with sensors and a camera at the end. The inspection was expected to last more than five hours.

The inspection technique was introduced after the Columbia disaster in 2003, and Atlantis was to be the third flight to try it out.

In 2003, Columbia's heat shield was damaged by flyaway foam from its external fuel tank during liftoff, allowing fiery gases to penetrate its wing and tear the shuttle apart as it later re-entered the atmosphere. Since then, NASA has struggled to find ways to prevent the hard foam from breaking away.