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Shuttle heat shield damage assessed

NASA is assessing damage to heat shield tiles on the shuttle Atlantis, but no major impact is expected as the astronauts gear up to capture the Hubble Space Telescope on Wednesday.

Engineers at the Johnson Space Center are evaluating a small area of tile damage on the forward part of the shuttle Atlantis' right wing where it joins the ship's fuselage. The nicked tiles, apparently damaged during launch by a debris impact around 106 seconds after liftoff, were spotted Tuesday during a lengthy heat shield inspection by the Atlantis astronauts.

LeRoy Cain, chairman of NASA's Mission Management Team, told reporters late Tuesday that engineers are not overly concerned about the damage and probably will not require an additional, "focused" inspection to collect more data. But engineers will continue their assessment overnight to make sure the damage poses no risk to the shuttle.

Damaged heat shield tiles on shuttle Atlantis' right wing. NASA TV

"This area is about 21 inches long," Cain said, describing a photograph of the damage site. "It looks like something just kind of chattered down along that edge there on the starboard chine area. The preliminary indications are that the damage is not very deep here, it's not very significant. This is not something we're very concerned about. But we want the team to do our normal assessment and evaluation of it, and they'll do that overnight tonight."

But Cain said the preliminary assessment "certainly doesn't look like it's going to be an issue for us. And matter of fact, the teams are saying we probably will not even need a focused inspection in this area. But...we want to take the time and review the data overnight."

If a focused inspection is required, it would be carried out Friday, before the crew's second Hubble Space Telescope servicing spacewalk gets under way. Lead flight director Tony Ceccacci said a focused inspection, if ordered, would have no major impact on the planned EVA.

Debris is seen in launch video an instant before impact on the shuttle Atlantis' right wing. NASA TV via
Debris impact on the shuttle Atlantis' right wing. NASA TV via

At the Kennedy Space Center, meanwhile, engineers are evaluating damage to the flame deflector at launch pad 39A where Atlantis began it's voyage Monday. The flame deflector, positioned directly below the exhaust ports of the shuttle's mobile launch platform, suffered significant erosion of the heat-resistant Fondu Fyre coating used to divert 5,000-degree flame from the shuttle's solid-fuel boosters.

Engineers found a fair amount of debris littering the pad surface and the immediate area around the "flame trench" during a post-launch inspection, but "this was all debris that was moving around in the area that was below the pad area where the vehicle sits on top," Cain said. "Atlantis was not in danger of being struck by this debris."

The shuttle Endeavour currently is mounted on nearby launch pad 39B where it is on stand-by duty for a possible emergency rescue mission in case the Atlantis astronauts encounter any major problems in orbit that might prevent a safe re-entry. Engineers plan to move Endeavour to pad 39A for launch June 13 on a space station assembly mission after it is released from rescue standby.

Cain said the damage to the flame deflector at pad 39A does not appear to be serious and engineers are confident it can be repaired with no impact on Endeavour's June launch date.

Damage to pad 39A was not the only issue engineers at Kennedy had to deal with. A few hours after pad 39A was blasted by Atlantis' exhaust, two lightning strikes were recorded at pad 39B.

"The weather apparently got a little stirred up last night and there was some lightning and some storms in the area in the vicinity of the cape and the pads," Cain said. "And we did record two lightning strikes at pad B."

Engineers are carrying out an assessment to make sure the strikes caused no problems for the shuttle's complex electrical system.