A freshly inspected space shuttle Endeavour looked to be in good shape Wednesday as it headed toward a rendezvous with the international space station to deliver a Japanese laboratory.
A check of the ship's heat shield, using a robot arm equipped with laser and cameras, turned up no obvious damage from Tuesday's launch, although NASA said debris or a bird may have struck the nose as it rose from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"My untrained eye says, first cut through, everything looked fine," flight director Mike Moses told reporters at Johnson Space Center.
NASA experts will study the inspection video to make sure there are no trouble spots in the heat shield, he said.
Struck by bird?
Images from the night launch showed something that appeared to collide with Endeavour's nose 10 seconds after it lifted off from the seaside launch pad.
When asked if it might have been a bird, Moses said, "It's certainly a possibility, I can't even begin to speculate what it might be."
He said at that point in the flight, Endeavour was not going fast enough to do much damage.
NASA knew the rare nighttime launch would come at a photographic cost. But past successes at preventing the shuttle's fuel tank from losing big chunks of foam insulation during liftoff and the accuracy of heat shield inspections convinced managers the night launch was a good choice.
A new photographic flash system embedded in a cavity in Endeavour's belly helped illuminate the external fuel tank as it dropped away, empty, eight minutes into the flight.
A significant piece of foam or other debris came off Endeavour's tank just over a minute into the flight; it appeared to miss the right wing.
In-flight heat shield inspections were begun after shuttle Columbia disintegrated while returning to Earth in 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board.
An investigation found that insulating foam flew off the fuel tank during launch, struck the wing and damaged the heat shield, which caused Columbia to break apart during the fiery descent into the atmosphere.
12 days at station
During what is scheduled to be a 12-day stay at the space station, the shuttle's seven-man crew will install the first part of Japan's Kibo laboratory and a new Canadian-built robotic system called Dextre for detailed work on the station exterior.
Kibo, which means "hope" in English, is Japan's primary contribution to the $100 billion station, which is a project of 15 countries.
About the size of a double-decker bus, it will be the station's largest lab when its assembly is completed next year.
NASA is aiming to finish the space station, now 60 percent built, before the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
The three space station residents had to drastically shift their work and sleep hours in order to synch up their schedule with that of the shuttle crew, due to arrive at the orbiting outpost late Wednesday night.
"I'd say good morning, but I don't know what time of day it is," the space station's commander, Peggy Whitson, told flight controllers late Tuesday afternoon. She said she and her crewmates were feeling fine, but added: "We'll see how we do at the end of the day."
The 10 space travelers face a staggering amount of work once their spacecraft link up. Five spacewalks are planned during Endeavour's visit, the first one getting under way Thursday night.