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Initial survey finds no major damage to Discovery

Shuttle appears set for a rendezvous with space station

HOUSTON -- Early inspections revealed no major damage to the space shuttle Discovery, NASA said yesterday after a day of checking out the spacecraft with on-board cameras.

That means that when the shuttle meets up with the international space station this morning it probably won't need emergency repairs while hooked up with the orbital outpost -- unlike last year's daring spacewalk fixes.

Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said last evening that the redesigned sections of the external fuel tank held up well during the launch, and that little if any foam came off those areas.

``We do not have nearly the issues" as compared with Discovery's previous flight, Shannon said. He said there was a sense that overall the space shuttle program was back in business.

``It's a great feeling," Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, said after an evening news conference.

Yesterday's inspection by the astronauts uncovered a thermal tile filler poking about a half-inch out of the belly of Discovery. Shannon said better data should be available today but for now, engineers do not believe the dangling fabric will pose a danger for reentry or require spacewalking repairs, as it did last summer when two similar strips had to be removed in orbit.

This so-called gap filler dates back to 1982 and is in an area where the thermal tiles are fairly thick, Shannon said. Additional gap fillers might be loose as well and may be spotted by the space station crew when the shuttle closes in for docking, he said.

Photos showed two areas of small foam loss around the controversial ice frost ramps, but the foam loss was too small and too late to be a danger to the shuttle, Shannon said. Last month NASA's safety director and chief engineer recommended against a launch until the area around those ramps was fixed. A repair plan is still being designed.

Engineers are still poring over 70 minutes of video that astronauts shot using an extended boom armed with a laser and cameras to inspect Discovery's delicate reinforced carbon wing and nosecone.

In 2003, a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external tank knocked a hole in a wing during launch, causing Columbia to disintegrate as it returned home .

And last year, film captured damage during the first space flight after Columbia, requiring an emergency repair spacewalk.

Engineers will go over yesterday's images of Discovery -- and others shot by cameras during Tuesday's launch from various locations -- and report any possible losses of foam from the tank or damage points on the shuttle. So far the list of ``areas of interest" for possible damage is empty, lead flight director Tony Ceccacci said yesterday. ``We have a very clean vehicle."

The seven-member Discovery crew awoke early yesterday to the sounds of ``Lift Every Voice and Sing."

``That one is particularly dear to my heart because . . . after the day of our nation's independence, it's very fitting because it reminds us that anyone and everyone can participate in the space program," astronaut Stephanie Wilson, a native of Pittsfield, Mass., who is the second black woman in space, radioed to Mission Control.

The mission for Discovery's crew is to test shuttle-inspection techniques, deliver supplies to the international space station and drop off European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter for a six-month stay. Astronauts Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum plan two spacewalks, and possibly a third, which would extend the 12-day mission by a day.

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