Atlantis Has Busy First Day

Spacers Mission Coverage: STS-129, Flight Day 2
Today is a busy first day in orbit for the Atlantis crew after their spectacular launch yesterday. The primary task is a comprehensive inspection of the Thermal Protection System - the black heat shield tiles covering the belly of the Shuttle. Since returning to flight after the Columbia disaster in 2002, NASA has required each Shuttle mission to inspect the tiles with the addition of a boom sensor that is grappled with the orbiter robotic arm. Packed with sensors, the boom is painstakingly maneuvered over every squared inch of the tiles and wing leading edges. The data is then analyzed on the ground and a decision is taken on whether it is safe for the orbiter to reenter.

Atlantis' wing leading edge during inspection

The cause of the Columbia disaster was deemed to be a chunk of foam that fell from the external tank and impacted the wing during a critical period of the launch where supersonic winds can accelerate debris to dangerous speeds. NASA has since improved design and manufacture of the tank and reduced foam loss to minimize the possibility of repeating the impact.

So, what happens if they can't return home?
The remaining Shuttle flights are much safer now, but should the worst happen and the inspection reveals a breach, there are several options for tile repair that the astronauts could perform whilst in orbit. If the damage is considered too much to repair, the Shuttle crew can take refuge at the ISS and await a second Shuttle rescue mission.

Other tasks for the day include checking out spacesuits and grappling the Express Logistics Carrier 1. The crew also will install the centerline camera, extend the Orbiter Docking System ring and checkout rendezvous tools in preparation for docking.

Catch the mission live on NASA TV - see links to the right.

You can also check out the NASA TV Schedule for event times.

Next up for STS-129: Docking to the ISS, scheduled for Wednesday at 11:53am EST.

Image credit: NASA TV
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