US Astronauts Inspecting Shuttle for Damage

Posted July 9th, 2011 at 9:30 am (UTC-5)
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Astronauts aboard the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis are using their first full day in orbit to inspect the shuttle's heat shield for any damage from Friday's launch.

The U.S. space agency, NASA, says crew members are conducting Saturday's inspection in preparation for docking at the International Space Station on Sunday.

NASA says the four-member crew is using the shuttle's robotic arm and an extension with cameras on the end of it to get a close-up look.

Imagery experts on the ground will examine the data to make sure the heat shield is still in good condition.

The inspection is standard procedure. In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed when it re-entered Earth's atmosphere because of damage during launch.

Atlantis is on the 135th and final flight of the 30-year-old U.S. shuttle program. The shuttle's crew is delivering supplies, spare parts and science experiments during the 12-day mission, which NASA has described as “pretty busy.”

The cargo is expected to bridge the gap in supply shipments for the space station until commercial enterprises take over delivery by the end of this year at the earliest.

An estimated crowd of 1 million people watched the historic lift-off in and around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The space shuttles have served as the complex workhorses of the U.S. manned space program for the last three decades, playing a key role in the building and operation of the International Space Station and performing other important missions. The end of the shuttle program leaves the United States without its own manned spacecraft.

NASA is ending the shuttle program to concentrate resources on deep-space exploration. The agency is working with several commercial U.S. aerospace companies to develop vehicles to replace the shuttles. Until then, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft will ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS, while Russian, European and Japanese cargo spacecraft will continue their resupply and waste disposal missions to the station.

The four astronauts on Atlantis are Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim and Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus. All four have flown on previous shuttle missions.