Astronauts inspect space shuttle in case of damage

CAPE CANAVERAL — Space shuttle Atlantis’ astronauts scoured their ship Tuesday for any signs of launch damage while pursuing the International Space Station.

The early word was that the shuttle appeared to be in good shape. “No issues so far,” said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team.

Atlantis and its crew of six will hook up with the space station on Wednesday.

The shuttle gradually was gaining on the station, and the two crafts were on opposite sides of Earth at midday Tuesday, not quite 24 hours into the chase.

“You’ve got 8,000 miles of rock between you and it,” Mission Control informed shuttle commander Charles Hobaugh.

“I’m seeing somebody out in front, must not be them,” Hobaugh joked.

“Can you get the license plate number for us?” Mission Control asked. “Looks like one of those personalized license plates,” Hobaugh replied.

Hobaugh and his crew spent much of their first full day in orbit inspecting the shuttle’s thermal shielding. They used a 100-foot, laser-tipped boom to scan the wings and nose cap, routine work that took hours to complete.

The survey did not reveal any obvious problems, at least at a first glance. A quick look at the images from Monday’s launch also showed nothing to be worried about.

Even more data will be collected right before Wednesday’s docking. The space station residents will take a few hundred close digital photos as Atlantis pulls up and performs a somersault.

Engineers will pore over all the information to ascertain whether Atlantis is intact and able to make a safe descent, when it comes time to return home at the end of next week.