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NASA: Foam may have hit wing

Space agency says no damage found

A closeup of Discovery shot from the international space station.




National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration

(CNN) -- A small piece of insulating foam that came off the space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank may have struck the wing of its orbiter during liftoff. But NASA experts do not believe the foam caused any damage, a NASA official said late Thursday.

Camera footage of the launch showed a piece of foam about 7 inches long and 2 inches wide separate from the tank at an altitude of about 200,000 feet in an upward trajectory toward the wing, deputy program manager Wayne Hale said.

Hale said it was not clear from the videotape whether the foam struck the wing. Sensors on the leading edge of the wing did not detect any impact.

Even if the foam did strike the wing, Hale said NASA's calculations show the impact would have had about one-tenth of the energy necessary to cause damage.

A larger piece of foam also fell off the tank, but NASA officials don't believe it struck the orbiter.

Hale has said that piece measures from 24 to 33 inches long, 10 to 14 inches wide, and 2.5 to almost 8 inches thick -- only slightly smaller than the piece of foam that damaged Columbia's wing.

The space agency announced Wednesday that it would suspend future shuttle flights until engineers understand the falling foam problem.

Falling foam from the external fuel tank of Columbia during its 2003 launch was blamed for damaging the spacecraft, which led to the deaths of seven crew members upon their return to Earth.

Discovery is the first shuttle launched since that tragedy.

Over the next four to five days, engineers "will come up with a fly-home as-is recommendation, or a repair recommendation, as required," Hale said.

Making it look easy

The shuttle's docking with the international space station at 7:18 ET Thursday provided NASA with visual evidence that the shuttle is in good shape.

Prior to the rendezvous, Discovery flew in an unusual upside-down maneuver so space station cameras with special lenses could take pictures of possible damage.

Upon docking, a connecting hatch opened, and both crews greeted each other with hugs and smiles.

"The orbiter continues to perform beautifully, the crew flew a picture-perfect rendezvous this morning. It went so well, as a matter of fact it even looked easy to us," said flight director Paul Hill.

By afternoon, the crew began transferring cargo consisting of food, tools and replacement parts from the shuttle's Raffaello multipurpose logistics module (MPLM) to the space station.

On Friday the module will be lifted out of Discovery's payload bay and attached to the station.

Shuttle crew members plan to test repair techniques during three space walks by astronauts Steve Robinson and Soichi Noguchi of Japan. The two also plan to service the space station.

The first of three space walks is set for 4:44 a.m. ET Saturday.

Discovery is scheduled to remain docked until August 5 and return to Kennedy Space Center August 7.

Crew members updated

In addition to the falling foam, a piece of tile also fell from Discovery's underside near the forward landing gear -- an area that has a double layer of protection.

Hill assured reporters Thursday the crew is being kept up to date on the situation.

"We haven't talked to the crew about it today because the crew has been busy pretty much from wake-up and they're going to stay busy right up until they have to go to sleep. But I did send a couple of e-mails to them this morning explaining to them where we were," he said.

Since Columbia, NASA has developed contingency plans for astronauts to try to repair damaged shuttles so they can return to Earth. If a spacecraft cannot be repaired, plans call for the crew to take refuge in the space station until a rescue mission can be launched.

CNN's Miles O'Brien, Marsha Walton and Kate Tobin contributed to this report.

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