Astronauts forced into shorter shuttle survey |

Astronauts forced into shorter shuttle survey

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – A snagged cable forced Atlantis’ astronauts to resort to a more inconvenient and less comprehensive method of inspecting their space shuttle Saturday as they sped toward a weekend rendezvous with the International Space Station.

Mission Control, meanwhile, decided there was no need to move the space station away from a piece of space junk.

Experts had monitored the orbiting debris for a couple of days, projecting it to pass within six miles of the shuttle and space station shortly after Sunday’s docking. In the end, flight controllers concluded the unidentified object would remain at a safe distance and pose no threat.

Sunday morning’s scheduled linkup remained on track, despite the space junk issue and the condensed safety survey of Atlantis.

The inspection is a standard – and essential – procedure the day after liftoff. A 100-foot boom is used to survey the heat shield on both wings and the nose in a hunt for launch damage. On Saturday morning, however, the astronauts could not tilt the bundle of laser sensors and TV camera on the end of the pole.

It turns out a cable was pinched by the camera at the end of the boom. The astronauts didn’t think they could free it.

“Oh come on, man, we’ve got faith in you,” Mission Control said. “Can’t crack the whip with a little centrifugal acceleration?”

“Need to pull some G,” replied commander Kenneth Ham, referring to gravity forces. “Spin her up,” joked Mission Control.

Finally, after several hours, Mission Control had the astronauts use the backup set of lasers and camera hard-mounted to the boom, which left out some potential problem areas. They were limited to the daytime side of Earth because of the digital camera equipment.

The crew focused on the most vulnerable areas – the heat shield on the wings and nose. But the survey fell short on the left wing.

Atlantis’ astronauts likely will use the shuttle robot arm to complete the inspection following Sunday’s docking. In addition, extra photos will be ordered up from the space station crew during Atlantis’ final approach.

Astronauts also might be able to free the cable during one of three planned spacewalks.

“Kind of a strange one,” Ham noted, “and we’ll be interested to see how this plays out.”

Sarafin said it was too soon to know whether the equipment was put in wrong or whether the cable was shaken out of position during liftoff.

Day-after-launch and day-before-landing shuttle inspections were put in place following the 2003 Columbia disaster. Columbia shattered during re-entry because of a hole in the left wing; it was left there by insulating foam that broke off the fuel tank during liftoff.

Only a few small pieces of foam were spotted coming off Atlantis’ tank Friday. Nonetheless, the wings and nose still needed to be checked.

This is Atlantis’ last planned flight after a quarter-century of service. It’s hauling fresh batteries and a new Russian compartment to the space station.

Only two more shuttle flights remain, by Discovery and Endeavour. NASA is ending the program so it can focus on presidential-ordered trips to asteroids and Mars.