Analysts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston are examining video of what appears to be a bird slamming into the nose of the space shuttle Endeavour during its launch early Tuesday morning. It is unclear if that is the same incident that Mission Control mentioned to crew members when it told them that "We have observed one piece of debris passing the right wing at 83 seconds — no impact was seen."
The astronauts will spend tonight using the orbital boom attached to the space shuttle's robotic arm to examine it inch by inch for any signs of damage to the orbiter's fragile heat shield.
This mission, designated STS-123, is one of a dozen that remain on NASA's shuttle manifest. The last flight, STS-133, is tentatively scheduled for the middle of 2010. Mission STS-119 that was scheduled for later this year has been postponed; the parts it is supposed to deliver to the space station will have to wait until others are installed and working properly.
Inside Endeavour's cargo bay are parts of a large laboratory called Kibo, built by the Japanese space agency. Kibo is so complex that three shuttle flights will be required to get it up and running. A Japanese astronaut, Takao Doi, who flew on a shuttle mission in 1997, is on board to oversee the assembly of the Kibo lab.
"For the Japanese people, what we can do with this module is for many purposes, like science, or technology experiments, or writing poems, or paintings, anything can [be] done in this module."
In addition, Endeavour's crew will install a Canadian-made two-armed robot that can move around to different parts of the space station. Nicknamed Dextre, the plan calls for it to install and service components on the station's exterior, reducing the need for astronauts to go on space walks. Daniel Ray, who heads up the Dextre project for the Canadian Space Agency, expects great things from the robot. "It's quite surprising what a robot like Dextre can do with its sense of touch and it's precision."
Dextre notwithstanding, there are five spacewalks scheduled for Endeavour's flight. Astronauts Richard Linnehan, Michael Foreman, Garrett Reisman and Robert Behnken will divide up the outside work.
The mission commander is Dominic Gorie, who is making his fourth flight. Also on the flight deck is pilot Gregory Johnson, who has waited nearly 10 years for his first flight.
There will be something of a musical chairs game on this flight, as there have been on past space station missions. Spacewalker Reisman will stay behind as a member of the space station crew. His seat on the ride home will be taken by French Gen. Leopold Eyeharts, who was delivered to the station by the shuttle Atlantis six weeks ago.
Reisman is a devoted New York Yankees fan; his home page on orbit has the league standings and he is flying some dirt from Yankee stadium. "The Yankees let me have a small sample of dirt from the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium."
He thought about getting dirt from the Boston Red Sox's Fenway Park and mixing it with the Yankee Stadium dirt as a goodwill gesture while on orbit, and then decided against it. "Some conflicts are not meant to be resolved."
There will also be something of a traffic jam in orbit. A new European-made robotic cargo ship, known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle or ATV, was launched from French Guiana on Saturday. It will hover in orbit until Endeavour has left, and then dock with the station.
After the shuttles are retired, the space station will have to rely on the European ATV, plus Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, for supplies and new crew members. The next generation of American piloted ships, known as Orion, will not begin flying until the middle of the next decade.