Astronauts discovered a long stretch of nicks along the right side of the space shuttle Atlantis when they were inspecting their ship Tuesday for signs of launch damage, but NASA managers said they weren't too worried.
The type of damage the shuttle sustained looks similar to nicks seen in the past five or six missions that were safe, they said.
The space agency released a photo that shows what appears to be about ten white scuff marks — officials hadn't counted how many yet — around the edge of the shuttle where the right wing joins the fuselage and the belly curves up to the top of Atlantis.
"The area is not as critical" as other parts on the shuttle wing, deputy shuttle program manager LeRoy Cain said in a Tuesday afternoon news conference. "The damage itself appears to be relatively shallow and it's not a very large area of damage."
"Again, right now, everybody's feeling pretty good that it's not something particularly serious," Mission Control told the astronauts. "We just want to make sure we do the right thing and complete all the analysis."
Damage to the shuttle during liftoff has been a worry for NASA since Columbia was doomed by a chunk of fuel-tank insulating foam that broke off during launch in 2003. Columbia's left wing was punctured, along a vulnerable edge and at the time NASA managers ignored an engineer's request for more photos of potential damage. NASA said the nicks on Atlantis are in a less sensitive location.
Cain told reporters that a decision will be made Wednesday whether the astronauts will need to conduct a more detailed inspection of that area. Cain said he doubts it would be needed. If it is required, the additional survey to determine the depth of the nicks would be done Friday right before the second of five spacewalks planned for Hubble.
Atlantis will catch up with the 19-year-old Hubble on Wednesday. The astronauts will capture the aging observatory and, the next day, begin the first of five grueling spacewalks to install new cameras and equipment and repair some broken science instruments.
Meanwhile, Atlantis' launch pad took more of a beating than usual during Monday's launch. The heat-resistant material that covers the bricks beneath the pad was blasted off a roughly 25-square-foot area. Some nitrogen gas and pressurized air lines also were damaged.
The damage to the bricked flame trench — which deflect the flames at booster rocket ignition — was near a previously repaired spot but not an area severely battered last year. Monday's damage was not as bad, said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.
And the other launch pad, where Endeavour sits, was struck twice by lightning late Monday, but the shuttle appears to have no damage because of a lightning protection system, Cain said.