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updated 12/3/2003 4:06:42 PM ET 2003-12-03T21:06:42

At NASA’s request, the Pentagon is using spy satellites to check the international space station for any exterior damage that might explain the loud metallic noise heard last week by the two men on board.

THE SPACE AGENCY says it learned a lesson from the Columbia disaster.

“In everybody’s minds, there is, ‘OK, let’s make sure we don’t miss something.’ They’re keyed up, they’re more attentive than they might otherwise be,” said Charles Precourt, a space shuttle commander now serving as deputy manager of NASA’s space station program.

Precourt told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the Defense Department has used its technology to look at the orbiting outpost since the noise was reported on Nov. 26. (Several media outlets, including the independent NASA Watch Web site and MSNBC.com, previously have referred to NASA’s request for Pentagon aid, but Precourt’s comments served as public confirmation of the request.)

NOTHING CONCLUSIVE SO FAR

Because of the classified nature of the work, Precourt would not say whether NASA has obtained any satellite or ground telescope images so far that shed light on the problem. But he said nothing amiss has been found.

Astronaut Michael Foale and cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri — 1½ months into a six-month stay aboard the space station — have used the spacecraft’s arm and cameras to inspect the exterior of the Russian-made living quarters, but the instruments cannot peer into every corner.

Among the possible explanations given by NASA: a loose or flapping antenna or cover, or a bit of space junk that hit the station.

“We’re trying to nail down what the source might be,” Precourt said. “As of yet, we don’t have anything conclusive on that.”

The two men may be asked to perform an up-close inspection during a spacewalk in February, Precourt said. But that spacewalk has not yet been approved because of concerns about leaving the station with no one inside.

Three people normally live on the space station, but the crew was reduced to two last spring because of the indefinite grounding of the shuttle fleet.

‘NOISES IN THE NIGHT’

Foale and Kaleri had just awakened and were in the Russian living quarters when they heard a noise that sounded like a flapping sheet of metal. The air pressure, however, was stable, and all of the station’s other systems seemed to be fine, too.

Foale, who was aboard the Russian Mir space station for the 1997 collision, said he knew the space station had not been ruptured. When a cargo ship rammed into Mir, his ears popped from the falling air pressure. That did not happen this time.

Precourt said space station crews often hear “noises in the night” and know what they are. “This one was unique,” he said.

Soon after the Columbia tragedy, NASA announced an agreement with the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency for the military to routinely capture detailed satellite images of orbiting shuttles and the station.

While Columbia was in orbit, engineers had pushed for spy satellite pictures of the shuttle to check for damage from a piece of foam insulation that fell off the fuel tank during liftoff. But NASA managers refused to ask the Pentagon for help.

The shuttle broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1 because of a plate-size hole in the wing’s leading edge that let in the searing gases of re-entry. All seven astronauts were killed.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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