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Astronauts inspect shuttle's damage

Astronauts try to ascertain the damage caused to the shuttle during lift off as Wiliams prepares for the arrival.

world Updated: Jun 10, 2007 22:42 IST

Astronauts aboard Atlantis on Sunday tried to ascertain the damage caused to its body during lift off as Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams and other crew at the International Space Station were making final preparations for the arrival of the spacecraft.

The shuttle, on its first mission of the year, suffered a 10-cm tear on its thermal blanket and a few pieces of foam fell off during launch, but NASA officials said the agency did not consider the damage significant.

The shuttle, scheduled to dock at 3:38 pm (0108 IST on Monday), is to bring back 41-year-old Williams, after a six-month stay in space, the longest for any woman.

Atlantis' astronauts completed mandatory inspection of the spacecraft's heat tiles and outer edges to check for any damage similar to what had caused the fatal 2003 Columbia mishap in which India-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla was killed.

"There's not a great deal of concern over it right now, but there's a lot of work to be done and we'll do that in the coming days," John Shannon, chairman of NASA's Mission Management Team, told reporters.

Astronauts used the shuttle's robot arm and a powerful camera to take a close look at the damage caused to its body, he said.

In the post-Columbia world, NASA takes no chances and Shannon said adding the protruding blanket seen on Atlantis' port OMS pod will get a thorough engineering analysis to make sure it doesn't pose a threat to the ship or its crew.

Atlantis blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday to begin a two-day chase of the station.

"If necessary, the astronauts could work on the protruding blanket, possibly tucking the material back in and pinning it down or even using a viscous, heat-resistant tile-repair material to fill in the exposed underlying area," Shannon said.

During the 11-day mission, Atlantis' crew will continue the on-orbit construction of the ISS.

The Atlantis astronauts, meanwhile, are continuing to close in on the international space station, on track for docking.

They will deliver a new power tower to the space lab, an addition that will provide electricity for science laboratories built by the Europeans and Japanese.

Rick Sturckow is commanding the shuttle and on board are pilot Lee Archambault, Mission specialists Patrick Forester, James Reilly, Seven Swanson and John olives and flight engineer Clayton Anderson who will replace Williams.

Atlantis is slated to undock from the station on June 17, the day after flight engineer Williams breaks the record for the longest spaceflight ever by a woman.

The record, 188 days and 4 hours, is currently held by NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid.

The mission was originally scheduled for mid-March but a hail storm damaged its fuel tank and the delay resulted in Williams staying three extra months in the space lab.

Williams will be in rehab for at least 45 days, depending on her health condition, after which both her parents will join her in Houston, where she has been living since 1998 after being selected as astronaut by NASA.