NASA: Astronauts use robotic arm to inspect Endeavour

Sixth time is the charm for NASA space shuttle as it finally blasts off for 16-day mission

The sixth time was the charm for NASA's space shuttle Endeavour, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., late yesterday afternoon.

Two Endeavour launch attempts were halted last month because of a gaseous hydrogen leak, and then NASA aborted three more launch attempts over the past week because of bad weather.

Endeavour shrugged off its hard luck yesterday and lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EDT under clearing skies.

Now that the shuttle and its seven-person crew are in orbit and chasing down the International Space Station for a planned Friday rendezvous, the astronauts are busy checking out whether Endeavour suffered any damage during the liftoff. The crew is using a robotic arm onboard the shuttle to check out whether the vehicle's heat shield can still handle the blazingly hot and tumultuous trip back to Earth at the end of the 16-day mission.

Using a camera mounted on the end of the robotic arm, the astronauts are capturing images and data about critical areas of the shuttle's thermal protection system, especially on the craft's nose and the edges of its wings. Information from the routine check up will be sent down to analysts at NASA's Mission Control in Houston for detailed analysis.

A robotic arm onboard NASA's Atlantis space shuttle was used in a similar fashion during that shuttle's mission in May.

NASA reported today that the four astronauts who will be making the five spacewalks during the mission will spend part of today checking out their space suits and the tools they will use.

Astronauts will be conducting the spacewalks to complete construction of a Japanese laboratory on the space station.

NASA is calling this shuttle trip its most technical mission yet -- one that will call on the power of three separate robots. The highly complex mission will include five spacewalks and the use of three robotic arms, with two working together and the other actually "walking" across the outside of the space station.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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