Shuttle Tile Damaged During Liftoff

NASA spots 3-inch 'gouge' in a bottom tile. No saying yet if it's serious.

Aug. 10, 2007 — -- NASA is investigating a three-inch gouge in a six-inch tile under the space shuttle Endeavour's starboard wing. New video shows something — possibly ice — hitting the shuttle 58 seconds into its launch on Wednesday.

When NASA slowed down and enhanced the images, engineers could clearly see a spray of what looks like ice slamming into the shuttle's starboard wing.

Is it a problem? Space Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon says it is too early for the Mission Management Team to know if the gouge is deep enough to be a threat to the space shuttle.

Photography and video taken by the crew on the International Space Station during Endeavour's approach to the station confirmed suspicions the shuttle had been hit by something during the launch.

Shannon says there are several steps his team will take. "There are three prongs to our assessment, first we will conduct a thermal analysis based on the damage, check the flight history and test the area. We would never take it lightly to send astronauts to the underside of the vehicle to do anything."

Nine pieces of foam insulation broke off Endeavour's fuel tank during the Wednesday launch, and three pieces appeared to strike the shuttle. One hit was confirmed by the video taken by the space station crew.

Since the Columbia disaster, NASA is sensitive to debris hitting the shuttle. A 1.67-pound piece of foam, which broke off the space shuttle's external tank, smashed into Columbia's left wing almost 82 seconds after launch, which created a crack that allowed super hot gases to penetrate the shuttle's wing as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The breach caused the shuttle to disintegrate over Texas, destroying the shuttle and killing its crew of seven.

Shannon is considering a spacewalk if the gouge is deep enough to necessitate a repair. He has three options to repair the damage. An astronaut could paint the area with a substance to seal it, use a putty-like mixture on the area, or screw a plate over it.

On Sunday, the space shuttle crew will use the orbiter boom sensor on the end of the shuttle's robotic arm to go under the shuttle and inspect the damage to give analysts more information about the gouge.