CAPE CANAVERAL - Lacking the proper laser tools, shuttle Discovery's astronauts performed a cursory wing inspection yesterday as they zoomed ever closer to the international space station.
The astronauts used their ship's 50-foot robot arm to beam down camera images of the upper edges of the wings so that engineers back on Earth could check for any evidence of launch damage. Left unexamined were the lower edges of the wings and the nose cap, also particularly vulnerable hot spots during reentry.
Astronaut Karen Nyberg, who helped operate the robot arm, said it was "just a quick inspection, as much as we could with what we have."
The astronauts' laser-tipped inspection boom is at the space station, left there by the previous shuttle crew in March. They will retrieve it after they arrive at the orbiting outpost today, and perform a full survey once they depart.
Discovery did not have enough room for the 50-foot boom because of the enormous Japanese lab that fills its payload bay.
About five pieces of insulating foam broke off Discovery's external fuel tank during Saturday's liftoff, and some of them may have hit the shuttle. NASA officials said they were not too worried because the foam losses occurred after the crucial first two minutes of the flight, and therefore lacked the acceleration to do much, if any, damage. What's more, the foam fragments looked thin and flimsy.
A big wedge of foam carved a hole in Columbia's wing in 2003 at liftoff and led to the demise of the shuttle and its crew during reentry.
Nyberg said neither she nor her crewmates saw anything wrong as they surveyed Discovery's wings. Discovery's fuel tank was the first built from scratch with all of the post-Columbia safety changes.
The seven shuttle astronauts, with help from the space station's three residents, will install Japan's $1 billion lab tomorrow.
It is named Kibo, Japanese for "hope," and is 37 feet long and weighs more than 32,000 pounds.
The first part of Kibo - essentially a storage shed - is at the space station, delivered by the last group of shuttle visitors. The compartment will be attached to the lab during Discovery's mission.
One of Discovery's astronauts, Gregory Chamitoff, will move into the space station for a six-month stay. He will replace Garrett Reisman, who will return to Earth aboard the shuttle.