Space

Damage to Shuttle's Insulation Prompts a Review

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NASA Mission Page

NASA engineers are worried enough about an insulating blanket that has come loose on Space Shuttle Atlantis to consider sending an astronaut on a space walk this week to fix it. For now, the shuttle is docked at the International Space Station.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Seven astronauts arrived at the International Space Station yesterday. The crew there rang a bell to greet them.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Atlantis arriving.

Commander Rick Sturckow is the first through the hatch, and Mission Specialist Clay Anderson on the right upside down.

NORRIS: That was NASA TV there, covering the astronauts. They'll spend a week on the station doing construction work. This is the first shuttle mission this year. And the launch was nearly flawless, but an inspection of the shuttle in space found that a corner of a small insulating blanket has come loose.

NPR's Nell Boyce is with us to talk about this. And Nell, how big a problem is this?

NELL BOYCE: Well, right now, NASA doesn't think it's that big of a problem. This blanket is part of the system that protects the shuttle as it's coming back to Earth and feeling the heat of reentry. And what's happened is basically a little corner of the blanket is sticking out. NASA's worried that that's sticking out piece might create a kind of hot spot.

How big of a problem is that? It's not clear yet. It's on a place in the shuttle that doesn't experience the worst heat of reentry. So they may - they could just leave it. But if they look at it some more and decide they want to repair it, they could send an astronaut out and have them, sort of, tuck that blanket back in and then seal it down.

NORRIS: What exactly are they building on this mission?

BOYCE: Well, this is part of the ongoing construction of the space station, this huge orbiting lab around the Earth. And what they're doing this time is they're installing some new solar panels. Basically, they want to give the space station more electricity. This will get it ready for the addition of new science labs later this year and next year. They're being supplied by the European and Japanese space agencies.

Then, when the shuttle comes back, they're going to be bringing home an astronaut called Sunita Williams, and she's been living on the station for six months. And apparently, she's really looking forward to coming home and seeing her dog, a Jack Russell Terrier named Gorby. And when she returns, she will hold the female world record for the longest continuous stay in space.

NORRIS: Now, Nell, NASA said this week that it wants to get in 16 more missions before it retires the space shuttle in the year 2010. Is it realistic for NASA to try that many shuttle launches in just three years?

BOYCE: They say it is realistic. They point out that in the past, they've done, you know, eight, nine missions a year. Critics say, well, that was in the past. Since the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA hasn't had nearly that many. For example, just this year, this is the first shuttle mission we've had and we're already in June.

NORRIS: Nell, I want to ask you about something. I understand that NASA told the astronauts that they needed to carefully inspect their gloves while they're out space walking this week. Could you explain this for us?

BOYCE: Right. So what happened was after the last shuttle mission, they astronauts came home and NASA realized that one of the space walkers had actually torn the outer layer of his glove. And naturally, when you're an astronaut and you're out in space, the last thing you want to hear is that you accidentally tore your spacesuit. It wasn't a problem last time around, but this time, NASA has told its people to just look. Look at your hands. Make sure there's nothing going on. And also, if you notice any sharp parts of the station, let us know.

NORRIS: And just quickly, since they want to get in 16 more missions, when is the next mission scheduled?

BOYCE: It's scheduled for August.

NORRIS: Thank you, Nell.

BOYCE: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Nell Boyce.

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