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NASA Weighs Whether to Repair Shuttle Tile Damage

14 August 2007

NASA engineers are trying to decide whether astronauts on board the space shuttle Endeavour will have to repair a gouge in the underside of the spaceship before they return to Earth next week. Up in orbit, three members of Endeavour's crew talked to reporters, and teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan took questions from school children. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Astronauts used a robotic arm Tuesday to pick up a spare parts platform from Endeavour's cargo bay and pass it to the station's crane to snap into position on the outside of the International Space Station.

Commander Scott Kelly, and Mission Specialists Tracy Caldwell and Barbara Morgan took time to field questions from reporters, from their space shuttle laboratory orbiting 338 kilometers above the Earth.

Commander Kelly was asked whether he is worried about the repairs that might be necessary to the shuttle's tiles. "My understanding is that this tile damage is not an issue of the safety of the crew, it's more of an issue of the ability to reuse the orbiter and damaging the orbiter. So we still have analysis ongoing. We still might choose to repair it, but I'm not concerned with our safety," he said.

NASA pays close attention to any damage to the heat shield tiles. In 2003, a blow from a piece of foam led to the fiery disintegration of the space shuttle Colombia as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Commander Kelly said NASA is likely to make a decision Wednesday whether Endeavour's crew should try to repair the damage during a spacewalk.

Agency officials say a piece of foam insulation struck the shuttle during launch last Wednesday, causing the damage. A spacewalking astronaut, riding on a platform at the end of the shuttle's robotic arm, might be able to fill in the damaged spot with a sealant. But engineers are concerned that an astronaut in a cumbersome spacesuit might accidentally bang against other heat-shield ties, causing additional harm.

Reporters asked astronaut-turned teacher Morgan, with her dark hair flying above her head, how it feels to float weightlessly in outer space. "Especially after about three or four days of "on orbit" the floating is fantastic, it's something you get used to and have a lot of fun with. At first, it's a little disconcerting, that very first day in orbit, the entire day I felt like I was upside down the whole time," he said.

Morgan and several other crew members also fielded questions from school children in Idaho. They explained that stars do not twinkle when you look at them in space.

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