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.