A piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank ricocheted off the shuttle during takeoff last week, piercing the orbiter’s heat-resistant tiles.
The gouge is 3 1/2 inches long and just over 2 inches wide. An inspection Sunday revealed the damage went all the way through the 1-inch-thick tiles, the Associated Press reported.
Mission managers plan to decide Monday or Tuesday whether to send astronauts out to repair the cut. Engineers are conducting tests on similarly damaged tiles to see if they can withstand the heat generated during re-entry.
“We have really prepared for exactly this case, since Columbia,” said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, referring to changes made in inspection and safety procedures following the 2003 breakup of Columbia during re-entry due to tiles damaged by falling foam. “We have spent a lot of money in the program and a lot of time and a lot of people’s efforts to be ready to handle exactly this case,” he said.
Teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan and crewmate Tracy Caldwell conducted the close-up laser inspection of the shuttle’s underbelly, using the 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom that Endeavor carried into space.
If the engineers deem a repair is necessary, it would probably occur during the remaining two spacewalks scheduled for Endeavor’s mission.
Monday’s spacewalk, performed by American astronaut Richard “Rick” Mastracchio and his Canadian colleague Dafydd “Dave” Williams from Endeavor, to replace one of the steering gyroscopes on the space station was expected to last 6 1/2 hours.
The washing machine-sized gyroscope is one of four used to keep the space station oriented, according to Reuters.
Endeavor, which has been docked to the space station since Friday, will stay there until Aug. 20 for a record 10-day mission.