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Atlantis Astronauts Inspect Shuttle in 1st Full Day in Orbit

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The astronauts aboard the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis have inspected the craft for possible damage from Monday's launch, ahead of a rendezvous with the International Space Station Wednesday.

The six astronauts began their first full day in orbit Tuesday by surveying the shuttle's thermal shielding using a special camera attached to the shuttle's long robotic arm.

They were also to install a camera, and examine space suits and docking procedure equipment in preparation for Wednesday's docking.

The shuttle is carrying more than 13 tons of spare parts for the space station, including equipment for the outpost's robotic arm.

Inspecting the shuttle for damage after a launch has became standard practice following the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster. Columbia's wing was punctured by debris from the external tank, causing the shuttle to disintegrate as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts.

Three spacewalks are scheduled during the 11-day space outing, which is NASA's last shuttle mission of the year. The crew will be at the station for a little over a week and will bring back an astronaut, Nicole Stott, who has spent three months on the orbiter.

Only five more shuttle missions to the ISS are scheduled before the fleet is retired next year. It is scheduled to be replaced by the new Constellation program, which will ferry astronauts to the orbital outpost, the moon and even Mars.

But a recent NASA report says the program is threatened by a serious lack of funding.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.