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Astronauts discover a long stretch of damage on the space shuttle Atlantis.

The shuttle appears to be in good overall shape, but the survey did uncover a 53cm (21in) line of chips on the vehicle’s right side. The line of chips uncovered by the inspection are in thick tiles that make up the protective heat shield on Atlantis’ starboard side. The damage is located where the right wing joins the shuttle’s fuselage. Nasa said the chips could be related to a debris event detected by the wing’s leading edge sensors 104-106 seconds into the lift-off.

This report leads to one of those surprising and uncomfortable truths about humanity’s current space travel skills:

If something goes wrong on this mission, Atlantis’ crew will not be able to shelter on the International Space Station (ISS). The station orbits at around 350km (220 miles) above Earth, while Hubble occupies an orbit about 560km (350 miles) up.

The Shuttle can’t fly there. It can’t shed 130 miles of altitude, establish a new orbit on a radically different inclination and maneuver to ISS. Because our things that fly in space still aren’t really spaceships as we’ve been brought up to think of them. In fact, the Endeavour’s on the launchpad now, ready to launch an unprecedented rescue mission if it’s determined that the Atlantis may not survive re-entry.

Published in researchmaterial


  1. You know, I just read a story on CNN yesterday about how Endeavor was already waiting on the adjacent launch pad to the one Atlantis took off from, in case something like this happened.

  2. Heh . . . while in a bad mood last month, I wrote up an entry on “spaceships” for Sterling’s Imaginary Gadget list.

    Spaceships, as opposed to space craft.

    Changing inclination is incredibly spendy. I have a notebook somewhere with the formula for doing it, but the short answer is it takes near as much of a change in velocity to move from one inclination orbit to another as it takes to get into orbit.

  3. Peter Peter

    This makes me want to dig out my copy of Orbiter.

  4. I’m really curious if this Endeavor backup plan is worth a damn. A few semesters back, I took a university course called “Politics and Technology” which focused almost exclusively on the various NASA disasters, and the politics behind them.

    More then once it was mentioned that There’s No Rescue Plan in case of a shuttle accident, that they take all the good parts off of whatever shuttle they’re not using, and paste them onto the current shuttle. And at this point, there’s not much in the way of good parts left.

  5. this is beyond depressing

  6. Ralph Ralph

    But what happens when, after Endeavor launches, damage is found on it’s wings/body as well? It seems to be an ongoing problem with each launch.

  7. @Blake – That’s how the USAF in Europe worked in the mid-to-late ’90s (probably still does). A plane would land, the mechanics would strip it for usable parts, slap ’em onto another plane, and that plane would then take off…

  8. James Bong James Bong

    Look, the cold war ended and we have no one in competition with us and no more incentive to pour money in to NASA. In the 1960’s we put so much of our resources into NASA that in one decade we went from extremely basic satellites to a system that was able to put two men on the moon and then fly them off, alive.

    I agree that It would be wonderful to give NASA more than 15 billion a year and let them go and build actual space ships or mine asteroids or build a moon colony, or send a team to mars, and all the other lovely things that they would have done by now if Russia had not collapsed… but right now our biggest priority is giving the baby boomers their fucking social security so they can elect another George W. Bush.

    I am actually hoping that China’s space program manages to move beyond sending a guy up into orbit for a few hours and then sitting around and congratulating themselves on how awesome they are…we really need serious competition if were going to get anywhere.

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