14 March 2008

Endeavour astronauts begin spacewalk


CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) -- A pair of astronauts have ventured out on the first spacewalk of Endeavour's space station mission despite a problem getting power to a giant robot that they needed to assemble.

The trouble cropped up earlier in the day and had engineers scrambling for a solution as Richard Linnehan and Garrett Reisman floated outside Thursday evening to start putting together the Canadian robot, named Dextre, and help attach a Japanese storage compartment to the international space station.

LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team, said the power loss would not affect the spacewalkers' work to attach the robot's hands to its 11-foot arms.

He said it's too soon to know whether the second spacewalk will be effected if the problem persists.

Before the late-night linkup, Endeavour's commander, Dominic Gorie, guided the shuttle through a 360-degree backflip to allow for full photographic surveillance.

It's one of the many safety-related procedures put in place following the Columbia tragedy in 2003.

The space station crew used cameras with high-powered zoom lenses to photograph Endeavour from nose to tail, especially all the thermal tiles on its belly.

The pictures -- as many as 300 -- will be scrutinized by engineers on the ground to see whether the shuttle suffered any damage during Tuesday's launch.


Something, maybe a bird, may have struck Endeavour's nose nine or 10 seconds after liftoff. The launch images are inconclusive so far. NASA expects that images collected during the astronauts' laser inspection of the nose and wings will reveal any damage, if it's there.

Cain said the launch video suggests to some that Endeavour's nose took a hit. Still photos, on the other hand, show no impact.

"It's too early to speculate," Cain said late Wednesday afternoon. "The team has got a lot of work to do on that as well as other debris items."

Also, right at liftoff, something appeared to fall off the tail end of the shuttle, possibly part of a thermal tile. Later, at the 83-second mark, a piece of debris, possibly fuel-tank foam insulation, appeared to miss the shuttle's right wing.

"There's nothing that stands out in terms of things that we're worried about," Cain said.

The photographs preceding the docking will add to NASA's arsenal of data for determining whether Endeavour will be able to re-enter safely at the end of its 16-day flight, the longest space station mission ever by a shuttle. All the analysis will take several days.

Bell chimes heralded Endeavour's arrival just before midnight. "Endeavour arriving," space station commander Peggy Whitson called out as she rang the vessel's bell.

"Peggy, that's the sweetest bell I've ever heard. Thank you very much," Gorie replied.

Mission Control praised Gorie for his expert flying.

Besides seven astronauts, one of them Japanese, Endeavour holds the first piece of Japan's new space station lab, Kibo, which is Japanese for "hope." The storage compartment will be attached to the orbiting complex on Friday; it's a temporary location until the lab arrives in May.

Endeavour also is delivering Dextre, which will be assembled during the first three spacewalks of the mission, as well as a new space station resident, Reisman. In all, five spacewalks are planned.

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