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NASA worries object falling from Discovery
Updated: 2005-07-27 11:54

Now that the Discovery is in orbit, intense examination begins. One camera on the shuttle caught a mysterious object falling from the shuttle at liftoff; radar detected another, about two minutes into the flight on Tuesday.

The New York Times reported that Discovery’s 12-day mission will be the most photographed in the history of the shuttle program, with all eyes on the spacecraft to see if it suffered that kind of damage from blastoff debris that brought down the Columbia in February 2003.

The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 26, 2005. [Reuters]

The intense examinations may be a mixed blessing. The more NASA looks for damage, experts say, the more it will find. And the risks of overreaction to signs of damage while the shuttle is in orbit may be just as great as the risks of playing them down, the Times commented.

"How do you distinguish - discriminate - between damage which is critical and damage which is inconsequential?" asked David Wolf, an astronaut who spent four months aboard the Russian space station Mir. "We could be faced with very difficult decisions, in part because of all this additional information."

The shuttle program has lived with damage from debris from the very first flight, in 1981; in 113 missions the orbiters have been hit by debris some 15,000 times, mostly on liftoff. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) replaces about 100 insulating tiles after every flight and repairs many more than that.

Thanks to a $15 million laser camera system developed by a Canadian company, Neptec, for example, NASA can detect a crack of just two-hundredths of an inch. On the leading edge of the orbiter's wing, such a crack could admit dangerous amounts of superheated gas during re-entry to the earth atmosphere, the New York Times reported.
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