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Saturday, August 11, 2007

The shuttle astronauts may have to patch it during a spacewalk , Fla. (AP) - NASA discovered a worrisome gouge on Endeavour's belly soon after the shuttle docked with the international space station Friday, possibly caused by ice that broke off the fuel tank a minute after liftoff.

The gouge - about 3 inches square - was spotted in zoom-in photography taken by the space station crew shortly before the linkup.

``What does this mean? I don't know at this point,'' said John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team. If the gouge is deep enough, the shuttle astronauts may have to patch it during a spacewalk, he said.

On Sunday, the astronauts will inspect the area, using the 100-foot robot arm and extension beam. Lasers on the end of the beam will gauge the exact size and depth of the gouge, Shannon said, and then engineering analyses will determine whether the damage is severe enough to warrant repairs.

The gouge - white against the black tiles on the underside of Endeavour - is several feet from the starboard main landing gear door. It appears to be the result of ice, although engineers are not positive; the damage could have been caused by a piece of foam insulation that came off the external fuel tank.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Shuttle Endeavour docked with the international space station Friday after performing an orbital backflip that permitted a close-up look for any damage from flyaway foam on launch day.

With commander Scott Kelly at the controls, Endeavour pulled up to the space station and neatly parked as the two spacecraft soared above the South Pacific. The shuttle and its crew of seven, including teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, will remain at the outpost for at least a week.

Morgan's entrance into the space station was dramatic, to say the least.

Her shuttle crewmates, all but one of whom floated in ahead of her, resembled paparazzi as they photographed her coming through the hatch. The station residents also captured the moment with cameras. She paused, as the flashes popped, a video camera running in her right hand and sunglasses pushed up on her forehead.

Morgan - who was Christa McAuliffe's backup for Challenger's tragic mission in 1986 - briefly set aside her camera to hug the three space station residents, then took more video of the crowded outpost. She plans to use the video for educational events after the mission.

Earlier, while still 625 feet out, Kelly steered Endeavour through a complete somersault so that the three space station residents could photograph the shuttle's belly. The 210-mile-high backflip - which lasted nine minutes and spanned the entire Atlantic - has been standard procedure ever since the Columbia disaster, providing a rare camera view of the shuttle's often-nicked underside.

Space station astronaut Clay Anderson videotaped Endeavour's backflip, while his two Russian crewmates snapped furiously away on digital cameras equipped with high-powered zoom lenses. Nearly 300 digital pictures were quickly beamed back to Earth.

NASA is especially eager to see these zoom-in pictures because of concern over three pieces of foam insulation from the external fuel tank that may have struck Endeavour during Wednesday's launch. Two are believed to have hit the shuttle's right wing.

Mission managers do not suspect any critical damage, noting the three foam fragments were probably too small and one came off too late in the launch to pose any threat. But they do not want to dismiss the possibility of damage, particularly to the vulnerable wings, which is precisely what happened during Columbia's doomed mission four years ago.

NASA hopes to ascertain whether any damage occurred after scrutinizing Friday's pictures along with data collected during a laser inspection by the shuttle crew on Thursday using a 100-foot robot arm and extension boom, and other imagery.

Endeavour is delivering several new space station parts, most notably a 2-ton square-shaped beam that will be hooked up to the orbiting outpost on Saturday. The astronauts also will install a giant storage platform for spare parts and a new gyroscope that will replace one that is broken.

For the first time, a docked shuttle will draw power from the space station using a new system being tested by Endeavour. If the system works as advertised, NASA will extend Endeavour's flight from 11 days to 14 days, allowing the shuttle to remain docked at the station for a record 10 days.

Of the 10 people aboard the joined spacecraft, Morgan is clearly the attention-getter. The former Idaho elementary schoolteacher backed up McAuliffe during Challenger's short-lived mission and was invited by NASA into the astronaut corps 12 years later. Columbia's catastrophic re-entry in 2003 further delayed her trip into space.

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