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The Nation

So Far, So Good, as Shuttle Docks Safely

July 07, 2006|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The crew of the shuttle Discovery successfully docked with the International Space Station on Thursday and prepared for a "focused inspection" today of several potential problem areas that have cropped up.

NASA officials kept open the possibility of a spacewalk later in the mission to remove two bulging gap fillers -- spacers placed between the shuttle's heat-resistant tiles.

NASA managers continued to portray the mission and the health of the shuttle in glowing terms.

"We have a long way to go on this mission," said John Shannon, deputy shuttle program manager. "So far, it is going great."

As Discovery moved in to dock with the space station, pilot Mark Kelly and commander Steve Lindsey put the shuttle through a "rotation pitch maneuver," a majestic pirouette that looks a little like a diver doing a back flip. The purpose was to present the underside of the shuttle to the space station's two-man crew, which snapped hundreds of photographs.

The images were still being reviewed late Thursday, Shannon said during a news briefing at Johnson Space Center in Houston. But it appeared certain that astronauts would be taking a closer look today at the gap fillers, as well as what appears to be a small piece of fabric extending from beneath the nose cone.

The focused inspection will be done with a 50-foot boom outfitted with a camera.

Last year when two protruding gap fillers were discovered, NASA ordered a spacewalk to remove them. The fillers were in sensitive areas where they could have caused unstable heating during reentry that could have burned through nearby tiles.

After that mission, NASA replaced thousands of gap fillers using a tighter adhesive bond.

The two sticking out this time were not among those replaced. They are much farther back on the body of the spacecraft in an area where protrusions would not be expected to endanger the shuttle on landing.

One of the gap fillers dates to 1982, Shannon said.

Though NASA doesn't believe the newly protruding gap fillers will be a problem, Shannon said, they will be scrutinized, and engineers will do aerodynamic computations to be certain. A spacewalk is "an option," he said, if the analysis turns out different than expected.

The space station and Discovery crews greeted each other with hugs and handshakes Thursday morning.

Discovery carries 2 tons of equipment and food for the space station. The shuttle also will leave behind a crew member, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter.

One piece of equipment carried by Discovery is an extra oxygen generator, which will allow the station to support a six-person crew.

If the rest of this shuttle mission goes as well as it has so far, NASA plans to finish construction of the space station with a shuttle flight in late August and another in December.

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