CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The Atlantis astronauts inspected their ship Tuesday for any signs of launch damage as they raced after the Hubble Space Telescope on an especially perilous and bold repair mission.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The Atlantis astronauts inspected their ship Tuesday for any signs of launch damage as they raced after the Hubble Space Telescope on an especially perilous and bold repair mission. Their launch pad took a beating, and NASA wanted to make sure none of the blasted-off material — or anything else — hit Atlantis during Monday’s liftoff. Back on Earth, NASA continued prepping another space shuttle to rush to the astronauts’ rescue if any serious damage is found. Engineers were scouring launch photos, and the astronauts’ inspection was expected to provide additional insight. Atlantis’ crew used a laser-tipped boom to look for damage during a survey that was expected to take several hours. Initial launch photos indicated that Atlantis looked fine. Atlantis will catch up with Hubble on Wednesday; the shuttle was trailing the telescope by 8,000 miles Tuesday morning and closing in. The astronauts will capture the aging observatory and, the next day, begin the first of five grueling spacewalks to install new cameras and equipment and repair some broken science instruments. First, though, the seven astronauts have to make sure their spaceship was unscathed by liftoff. Columbia was doomed by a chunk of fuel-tank insulation foam that broke off during launch in 2003, and NASA consequently made shuttle surveys standard procedure. This final trip to Hubble is also more dangerous because of all the space junk in the telescope’s 350-mile-high orbit. Recent satellite smashups have added to the litter. Unlike other space flights, Atlantis can’t reach the international space station as a shelter if there is damage, which is why shuttle Endeavour is in place for a rescue. The launch pad used by Atlantis, meanwhile, suffered more damage than usual. The heat-resistant material that covers the bricks beneath the pad was blasted off an approximate 25-square-foot area, said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. Some nitrogen gas and pressurized air lines also were damaged. The damage to the bricked flame trench, which deflect the flames at booster rocket ignition, was near a previously repaired spot but not an area severely battered last year. Monday’s damage was also not as bad, Beutel said. ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.