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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 July 2005, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Shuttle links with space station
ISS and Discovery crews together (Nasa)
All together: Docking occurred over the South Pacific
The Discovery shuttle has successfully docked with the International Space Station - two days after its launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

The manoeuvre allowed the crew on the ISS to take photographs of the shuttle's exterior.

They will be used to assess any damage which may have been caused when foam insulation broke off the orbiter's external fuel tank during the liftoff.

Nasa is concerned enough about the issue to suspend all future launches.

It was a similar fault that led to the loss of Discovery's sister craft, Columbia, and its crew of seven in February 2003.

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Space shuttle managers said that until they could get on top of the foam-shedding problem, it was not safe to fly the vehicles.

But Nasa administrator Dr Mike Griffin said it would be wrong to over-dramatise the current situation with Discovery.

"Everything that we see at this point says that the orbiter is in fact a clean bird," he told the ABC's Good Morning America programme.

Detailed inspection

Just before docking, Discovery performed a three-quarter-of-a-degree per second, 360-degree backflip to allow Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and US astronaut John Phillips - the ISS crew - a good view of its belly.

SHUTTLE RETURN TO FLIGHT
Mission known as STS-114
Discovery's 31st flight
17th orbiter flight to ISS
Payload: Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module
Lift-off: 1039 EDT, 26 July
Location: Kennedy Space Center, Launch Pad 39B
Discovery crew: Collins, Kelly, Noguchi, Robinson, Thomas, Lawrence and Camarda

The men photographed the orbiter's thermal shield using digital cameras and 400mm and 800mm lenses.

The images were transmitted from the space station for analysis at Nasa's Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas.

Initial reports indicated there were no areas that had been obviously or seriously impacted.

Managers announced the suspension of all shuttle flights on Wednesday evening EDT after more than a day analysing video and still images of Discovery's spectacular ascent from Florida.

The Discovery astronauts themselves also fed into the investigation the results of their own inspection of the orbiter's exterior using a boom with sensor and camera attachments.

From the evidence, it is clear a 61-84cm (24-33 inch) piece of foam tore away from the external fuel tank's Protuberance Air Load (Pal) ramp.

A 15cm (six-inch) piece of foam also came away from the tank bipod area, where engineers carried out important modifications post-Columbia, and smaller pieces from the acreage foam just below it.

'Of interest'

None of the foam is thought to have hit Discovery but it does mean Nasa will have to revisit the whole issue of foam insulation on the external tank.

The foam prevents the formation of ice on the fuel tank while it is standing on the launch pad.

"We have got to go take a look at this, and we have got to go find a solution to this problem. And we will," shuttle programme manager Bill Parsons said.

Pictures of the jettisoned tank reveal foam-shedding areas

Of more immediate concern will be apparent signs of damage to a rectangular tile near the nose landing-gear doors and a square "chine" tile further toward the aft (back) end of Discovery.

Nasa will want to establish if these "areas of interest" will compromise in anyway a safe return to Earth for Discovery. That landing is currently scheduled for 7 August.

The astronauts expect to get a close look at the two tile areas on Friday.

Three spacewalks are planned for the mission.

The first on Saturday will test repair kits designed to deal with small damage areas on the shuttle's heatshield tiles.

The two other spacewalks will repair and install critical hardware outside the space station.


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