Shuttle Discovery chased the international space
station in orbit Wednesday as its seven astronauts geared up for a
laser inspection of their ship's wings.
It was the first full day of what NASA considers to be the most
complicated space station construction mission yet. The shuttle was
to reach the station Thursday.
NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, said after
Tuesday's liftoff that the astronauts face a tremendous series of
challenges, but noted, "I can't think of a better start to this
mission than what we got today." It was the third on-time shuttle
launch in a row.
At least six pieces of foam insulation came off Discovery's fuel
tank during liftoff, but because that occurred after the crucial
first two minutes, the debris posed no risk to the shuttle,
"It's preliminary only, but it did look like a clean ascent,"
Mission Control informed Discovery's commander Pamela Melroy, only
the second woman to lead a shuttle crew.
Astronauts woke up early Wednesday to "Lord of the Dance,"
which begins with the lyrics "I danced in the morning when the
earth was begun, I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun."
Melroy said it was one of her favorites songs and thanked her
husband, Doug, for tipping off Mission Control.
Melroy and her crew were to use a laser-tipped inspection boom
Wednesday to check Discovery's vulnerable wings and nose, standard
procedure since the Columbia accident.
They will go extra slow, however, for a thorough check of three
wing panels that may have cracks just beneath a protective coating.
Even though NASA's own safety group wanted to delay the launch,
senior managers decided a week ago that wing repairs were
NASA is extra sensitive about launch debris and the shuttle's
thermal shielding ever since a hole in the wing brought down
Columbia in 2003, the result of a strike by a slab of fuel-tank
A much smaller piece of foam broke off a bracket on the fuel
tank during the last launch in August, possibly along with ice, and
gouged Endeavour's belly. That led to changes to Discovery's fuel
tank to prevent dangerous ice buildup from the super-cold
Discovery's primary payload is an Italian-built compartment,
about the size of a small bus, that will serve as the docking port
for science labs due to arrive beginning in December. Italian
astronaut Paolo Nespoli is personally delivering the pressurized
chamber, called Harmony.
During their 1½-week station visit, the astronauts must install
Harmony, relocate a giant girder and set of solar wings, extend
those solar wings and radiators, and test a thermal tile repair
kit. Five spacewalks are planned, which will be the most ever
conducted while a shuttle is docked at the station.
Astronaut Daniel Tani will move into the station once Discovery
docks. He will replace Clayton Anderson, who will return to Earth