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Shuttle's Liftoff Damage Slight; NASA Sees No Problem


Seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis are preparing for arrival Sunday at the International Space Station, after determining that their spacecraft suffered no significant damage during liftoff Friday.

A gap about 10 centimeters wide was spotted in a thermal blanket that is part of the shuttle's insulating heat shield, but NASA's experts are not seriously concerned. They say the insulating shield covering that portion of the shuttle's hull is not exposed to intense heat when the spacecraft re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

Despite those assurances, the space agency says analysis of the heat-shield issue will continue.

As the shuttle glided on its orbital path Saturday, heading for the space station, Atlantis' crew inspected the craft's outer surface with a camera attached to a long robotic arm.

Engineers spotted the potential heat-shield problem during examination of photographs taken in the first minutes after Atlantis blasted off late Friday from NASA's launch center in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida.

The flight had been delayed for three months, after a hail storm damaged foam insulation on the shuttle's external fuel tank.

Despite the thousands of patches visible on the fuel tank, covering dents from the storm, NASA's shuttle program director Wayne Hale says it held up well during launch.

Detailed inspections of the hull while a shuttle is in orbit have been carried out since 2003, when insulating foam broke off the ill-fated Columbia spacecraft during launch, and punctured a wing. That opening in the shuttle's superstructure allowed extremely hot gases into the wing during Columbia's re-entry, destroying the ship and killing all seven crew members.

The Atlantis crew will spend much of their 11 days in space installing a new set of solar panels to generate electricity for the station. One of the Atlantis astronauts, Clayton Anderson, will remain at the station, taking the place of fellow American Sunita Williams. She has completed a six-month stay in orbit and is now returning home.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.

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