Shuttle Plans Space Station Flyby

ISS crew will photograph Endeavour as part of heat shield inspection.
The space shuttle Endeavour is slated to perform a flyby maneuver over the International Space Station Friday so that astronauts on board the ISS can inspect the vehicle for possible damage from liftoff debris.

Shuttle pilots will execute a Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver—a sort of celestial back flip—that will expose Endeavour's underbelly to the space station. ISS crew will use high-resolution digital cameras to photograph the spacecraft's heat-resistant tiles, which were hit by foam debris from the orbiter's external fuel tank during Wednesday's launch at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttle will dock with the ISS after the inspection is complete. If there's a problem, Endeavour's crew can use an onboard repair kit to patch any damaged tiles.

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 the external fuel tank damaged heat shields on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The vehicle disintegrated upon reentry to earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Endeavour lifted off on Wednesday after a series of delays caused by faulty equipment and inclement weather.

STS-127, as the mission is called, is a 16-day roundtrip voyage 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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