Shuttle crew to inspect damaged heat-shield tile

HOUSTON — NASA ordered Endeavour's crew to take an unusual close-up look at a damaged tile in the space shuttle's delicate heat shield early this morning.

Using the shuttle's robotic arm, astronauts will scrutinize the gouge on the shuttle's underbelly with a high-resolution camera and a laser attached to a boom.

"There's nothing alarming here and we're not really concerned," said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the shuttle mission management team that decided Friday to order what's called a "focused inspection."

Cain said the two-hour maneuver is being done out of an abundance of caution and won't cause any disruption to the crew or its 16-day mission to the International Space Station.

The damaged tile was spotted in photos snapped by the station crew just before the shuttle linked up Wednesday. Initially, the photos showed seven sites with dings or gouges, but six of them were further analyzed and turned out not to be a problem.

The one site that remains a concern is the size of a deck of cards, just below the rear landing gear.

The location and size gives engineers a bit of confidence that the damage is not the type that caused the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. They also note that similar damage on Endeavour in 2007 — coincidentally commanded by Scott Kelly, brother of current commander Mark Kelly — turned out not to be a problem.

Cain told reporters that it's so unlikely that the gouge will be problematic that NASA hasn't even considered making contingency plans for fixing the tile in flight. NASA can repair damaged tiles using a souped-up version of a caulking gun during a spacewalk.

This is only the fifth time an extra inspection has been needed in 21 flights.

This is Endeavour's last flight and the second last of the 30-year space shuttle program. NASA is shutting down the program to focus on eventual missions to a nearby asteroid or other places farther out than Earth's orbit. Shuttle Atlantis is tentatively set to make the last flight on July 8 with a load of supplies and equipment for the station.