Image: Endeavour's payload bay
NASA TV
An externally mounted video camera shows the shuttle Endeavour's robotic arm poised over the open payload bay on Tuesday, with the Tranquility connecting node tucked within.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/9/2010 6:04:23 PM ET 2010-02-09T23:04:23

Space shuttle Endeavour is on course to hook up with the International Space Station during the middle of the night.

Endeavour and its crew of six are due to arrive at the space station early Wednesday.

The chairman of the mission management team, LeRoy Cain, said Tuesday that the shuttle looks to be free of any serious launch damage. But the analysis is continuing, and a few hundred photos taken from the space station during Endeavour's final approach will yield more data.

The shuttle blasted off Monday at 4:14 a.m. ET from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The six-astronaut crew, led by commander George Zamka, is bound for the space station to deliver a new room and space observation deck for the orbiting laboratory.

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour inspected their spacecraft Tuesday to search for any signs of heat shield damage as they head to the International Space Station.

The heat shield scan is a normal precaution to ensure that the vehicle was not hurt by any foam debris falling from the shuttle's external tank during liftoff. Preliminary video did not indicate cause for concern, mission managers said.

NASA's spaceflight operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier said cameras mounted on Endeavour's fuel tank revealed some instances of foam insulation loss, including one event about two minutes into the launch in which a larger piece peeled free but appeared to miss the spacecraft.

"It's probably about a quarter-inch thick, maybe about a foot or so long," Gerstenmaier said. "It didn't appear to impact the orbiter, and we see no damage to the orbiter. It's something similar to what we've seen before."

Another event was seen at about the eight-minute mark, he said.

The shuttle's heat shielding helps protect the orbiter from the scorching temperatures of re-entry when the vehicle plunges back through Earth's atmosphere to return to the ground. The meticulous scan will help make sure that the insulation is intact and the vehicle is safe to land.

The inspections have been a standard part of shuttle missions after the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew in 2003. A piece of foam debris damaged that orbiter's heat shield during launch, leading to its destruction during re-entry.

Endeavour and its crew are slated to dock at the station at 12:09 a.m. ET Wednesday. They have a busy agenda for their 13-day spaceflight, featuring three spacewalks to install the new module and observation dome on the orbital outpost.

Because of the timing of the shuttle's launch, Endeavour's STS-130 crew will be working the overnight shift and sleeping during the day. The astronauts awoke late Monday and worked well into the wee hours of Tuesday to perform the inspection, using a sensor-tipped inspection pole to sweep the sensitive heat shield panels lining the orbiter's wing edges and nose cap.

Mission specialists Kathryn Hire and Nick Patrick led the scan.

Slideshow: Earth as seen from the space station "Flight Day 2 inspection is a highly choreographed set of maneuvers with the space shuttle's robot arm holding a long boom and tracing backwards and forwards along the leading edges of each wing," Patrick said in a preflight interview. "It requires a fair amount of diligence because although the robot arm is being flown by the computer, you have to monitor it carefully enough that you could take over and stop it with a few seconds' notice in case it goes astray. ... The thermal protection system that we're inspecting is very fragile, and we don't think it would withstand a blow from the robot arm."

A similar scan will be performed near the end of Endeavour's flight to look for dings from space junk and micrometeorites.

While some crew members concentrated on the inspection, other astronauts spent their workday unpacking materials that had been stowed for liftoff and getting ready to arrive at the space station.

"So far, the crew has been doing very well on orbit," Alibaruho said. "We're looking forward to rendezvous and docking."

Marcia Dunn, from the Associated Press, and Clara Moskowitz, from Space.com, contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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