NASA: Endeavour shuttle does back flip for added inspection

Initial NASA analysis found small pieces of foam had been lost from external tank

The crew of the space shuttle Endeavour spent this morning continuing their inspection of the protective tiles on the outside the craft as it nears the International Space Station.

The shuttle, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., late Wednesday afternoon, is set to dock with the station at 1:55 p.m. EDT today.

NASA reported that during the initial inspection of the tiles, astronauts and engineers in mission control discovered that small foam pieces had been lost from the shuttle's external tank during takeoff. NASA said the foam pieces caused dents in the shuttle's in outer shield, though it has yet to determine the extent of the damage.

The inspection of the heat shield began yesterday when the Endeavour astronauts used the shuttle's robotic arm to collect data and images about the condition of the outer tiles. The inspection is a routine NASA practice that's done whenever a shuttle reaches orbit.

As part of today's inspection, astronauts rolled Endeavour into a backward flip so that its underbelly is facing the space station. In that position, astronauts onboard the space station can take high-resolution photos of the shuttle's heat shield for viewing by engineers in mission control. Those engineers will study the photographs to look for any as-yet undiscovered damage, as well as to calculate the extent of the damage already found.

During Endeavour's 16-day mission, four of the seven crew members are scheduled to conduct five spacewalks in an attempt to finish installing 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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