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Shuttle inspection turns up no damage

Atlantis’ astronauts scrupulously checked their ship Friday for any launch-day damage, and a quick analysis of the data revealed nothing amiss, NASA managers said.
Image: The European Space Agency built Columbus module
The European Space Agency's Columbus module is seen in the foreground of this image from NASA TV of the payload bay of the space shuttle Atlantis with the earth in the background.NASA TV via Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Atlantis’ astronauts spent their first full day in orbit Friday scrupulously checking their ship for any launch-day damage, and a quick analysis of the data revealed nothing amiss, NASA managers said.

"It looks like we had an extremely clean launch and ascent," said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.

Some pieces of insulating foam fell off the space shuttle's external tank three times during Thursday's liftoff, but none was big enough to pose any threat, Shannon told reporters. A small piece may have bounced off Atlantis’ belly seven minutes into the flight, but lacked enough force to do any damage, he said.

The initial assessment was based on an on-the-ground analysis of imagery gathered by cameras and sensors mounted on the end of a 100-foot (30-meter) inspection boom. The hours-long inspection, conducted by Atlantis' seven-man crew, has been part of the post-launch routine ever since NASA’s space shuttles resumed flying in 2005 following the Columbia disaster.

Shannon said the board in the engineering troubleshooting room was blank on Friday, the first time he’s ever seen it that way.

“We have a long way to go on this mission, but I absolutely could not have asked for a better start to it,” he said.

The next inspection is scheduled Saturday, just before the shuttle is due to dock with the international space station. While the shuttle does a backflip, the space station's crew will photograph every inch of the ship’s thermal shielding.

Birthday presents aboard
The station's scientific skipper, Peggy Whitson, turns 48 on Saturday — and the shuttle is brimming with birthday presents, ranging from a selection of spicy salsas to a $2 billion European lab that she’ll help set up.

“My present is a new module that we’re going to install on board the station,” said Whitson, a biochemist.

She put in a special request for different kinds of sauces to spice up the space station food. “It gets a little old after being here for several months,” she told NBC News during a space-to-Earth interview.

Her roommate, Daniel Tani, who turned 47 one week ago, said he couldn’t wait to get some fresh shirts. He ended up spending two extra months aboard the orbiting complex after fuel-gauge problems grounded Atlantis, his ride home.

Although they've been missing fresh laundry, the space station's residents haven't been missing out on the news. Tani and Whitson said they've been keeping up with events back on Earth thanks to uplinked broadcasts.

"We do actually watch the NBC Nightly News, as a podcast, but we up here do not have the ability to surf the Net," Tani said. "We do not have an Internet connection, but the great group on the ground that supports us takes those files and uplinks them to the computers where we watch them offline. Not only do we watch that broadcast, we also have personal broadcasts and shows, sitcoms or news shows, sporting events that we request."

The astronauts on the station and the shuttle will likely be too busy to watch sitcoms this weekend: After Saturday's docking, the combined crews will prepare for their first big construction task on Sunday. That’s when the 23-foot (7-meter) Columbus lab will be removed from Atlantis’ payload bay and attached to the space station with robotic cranes. Two spacewalkers will assist in the operation.

Columbus is the European Space Agency’s main contribution to the space station.

Twenty-three years in the making, it was supposed to be launched in 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. But station redesigns and stalled construction, as well as shuttle groundings, led to 16 years of delay.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and NBC News.