NASA: Nicks on shuttle don't look serious


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Neither /*Atlantis*/ nor its crew is in immediate danger but, there is enough damage to the tiles that NASA has not yet cleared Atlantis for a safe return. But that is probably just matter of further investigation and time.

For all the majesty and relief from Monday's launch, there are those inside NASA who sleep very little and play back the launch tapes in slow motion. They look for bright flashes that are small pieces of foam from the external fuel tank, hitting the orbiter at high speed.

After what they saw Monday, NASA's team knew exactly where to look during an inspection, Tuesday.

"Basically, they saw an event at about 103 seconds that tripped the leading edge sensors," Atlantis flight director Tony Ceccacci said.

NASA describes the damage as a series of nicks -- gouges covering four tiles, and stretching 21 inches near where the fuselage meets the wing.

They already know that the gouges are not very deep because they do not expose the heat shield's inner layer.

"But we're going to let the folks go ahead and take a look at it, follow the standard process and determine what we need to do next on those," Ceccacci said.

Their concern would be during re-entry. In 2003, a much deeper gouge in a leading edge in the left wing caused Columbia to burn up on re-entry, killing all on board.

NASA has never resolved this issue with the main tank, but previous missions have repaired tiles in space.

This time, NASA took even more steps. Due to the high orbit, NASA had already prepared the shuttle endeavor in case of a needed rescue.

"We are well prepared for it. We don't want to use it but we are prepared," Ceccacci said.

ABC7's sources say, after review, it was decided the damage was not significant enough to endanger the shuttle's landing, but an announcement is not expected to be made before Wednesday.

This would not be the first time a shuttle has landed with gouges in its tiles; NASA has a large data base on the problem. They will compare this damage with other flights and from that they will make their decisions.

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