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7/16/2009
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Shuttle Astronauts Inspect Heat Shield

Endeavour's exterior may have taken damage from debris during Wednesday's liftoff.

Astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour were slated to begin inspecting the craft's heat shields Thursday to ensure that debris from Wednesday's launch did not cause any significant damage.

Mission specialists Chris Cassidy, Tom Marshburn, Dave Wolf, Tim Kopra, and Julie Payette will use the shuttle's robotic arm and Orbiter Boom Sensor System to carry out the inspections, NASA said.

Though NASA at this point does not believe there is cause for alarm, the space agency isn't taking any chances. Pieces of foam insulation from external fuel tanks damaged heat shields on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The vehicle disintegrated upon reentry to earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Also Thursday, the Endeavour crew will check out the space suits that they will don for five spacewalks slated for their mission—officially known as STS-127.

Endeavour lifted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday after a series of delays caused by faulty equipment and inclement weather.

STS-127 is a 16-day mission that will see the Endeavour crew work to complete construction of Japan's Kibo space laboratory. The astronauts will add a porch-like platform to the lab's exterior that will allow experiments to be exposed to the vacuum of outer space.

NASA is expected to phase out the space shuttle program starting next year. Plans call for the development of an Apollo-style rocket and capsule system, dubbed Ares and Orion, to replace the orbiter.

Obama administration officials, however, have recently raised questions about the plan's cost and practicality. The Senate on Wednesday confirmed former astronaut Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden as NASA administrator.

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