NASA officials say images taken of the space shuttle Discovery's launch on Tuesday show a small piece of foam insulation may have struck the orbiter's wing. A similar wing hit during the launch of the Columbia in February 2003 caused the disaster when it burned up upon reentry into the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts. Mission controllers remain optimistic that there is little or no damage to the Discovery.
The piece of foam insulation that's got NASA officials concerned is a small piece that flew off Discovery's external fuel tank moments after lift-off Tuesday.
Something similar happened with Columbia when a bigger chunk of loose foam punctured the wing during launch and caused the vehicle to break up in the searing heat of reentry.
So, it came as a bit of a surprise when cameras trained on Discovery captured images of flying foam once again. At first, mission controllers said they were fairly certain that none of the insulation had struck the orbiter.
Now, assistant space shuttle manager Wayne Hale says they're not so sure. "The indications are that this little piece of foam took a turn, and so there is some concern or some thought that it most likely struck the wing," he said.
Mr. Hale said if it turns out the chunk of foam did strike Discovery's wing, it was probably too small to do any major harm. He said NASA engineers will begin pouring over high resolution images of the wing to see if they can detect any significant damage.
Mr. Hale believes the astronauts will return home safely. But NASA has the space shutle Atlantis standing by just in case. "We said we had at the very bottom of the tricks in our bag would be to perform a rescue operation. We're nowhere near doing that. I expect that by flight day six, we're going to get approval to fly home as is. So, that's not even under consideration at this point," he said.
The shuttle's seven astronauts will spend eight days with the two-man crew of the international space station, where they will conduct maintenance space walks and resupply the space laboratory.