Shuttle Atlantis Damaged on Launch

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May 13, 2009—The space shuttle Atlantis sustained minor damage to its thermal tiles during its Monday launch, likely from debris that came off the fuel tank after lift off.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP); some images and video courtesy NASA

Unedited Transcript

The space shuttle Atlantis caught up with the Hubble telescope on Wednesday, but suffered a bit of damage along the way a nearly 21-inch stretch of nicks.

NASA scientists hope the damage wont be serious.

SOUNDBITE (English) Tony Ceccacci, Lead Flight Director: "We did see, probably about 21 inches in all, but four tiles with some dings in them and, to me, I'm not the tile expert and that, but they looked very minor, but we're going to let the folks go ahead and take a look at it, follow the standard process and determine what we need to do next on those."

The damage was likely the result of debris that came off the fuel tank shortly after lift off on Monday.

The astronauts were inspecting their ship while racing to the Hubble Space Telescope when they came across the nicks spread over four to five thermal tiles.

A NASA photo shows what appear to be several white scuff marks around the edge of the shuttle where the right wing joins the fuselage and the belly curves up to the top of Atlantis.

SOUNDBITE (English) LeRoy Cain, Deputy Shuttle Program Manager: "The area's not as critical in terms of the same amount of damage in another area might be more critical. The damage itself appears to be relatively shallow. And there doesn't appear... It's not a very large area of damage. So those are the things that were conveyed to us today. Again, I would stress to you, it's very preliminary, but we are thinking that we probably will not even need a focused inspection in this area."

The debris strike was also detected in launch images as well as sensors embedded in the wings.

Damage to the shuttle during lift-off 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.

Even before damage was discovered, NASA was preparing shuttle Endeavour to rush to the Atlantis rescue if needed.

Nothing so far has been found that would require a rescue.

Atlantis will catch up with the 19-year-old Hubble telescope on Wednesday.

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