Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Repairs weighed as NASA studies gash

HOUSTON — If astronauts have to venture into the void of space to fix a deep gash on the shuttle Endeavour's belly, they'll get plenty of help from a team of experts assembled to help pick and perfect the best repair technique.

NASA put together the team of engineers, astronauts and spacewalk gurus on Monday as other specialists scrambled to determine whether the crew needed to fix the gouge to avoid extensive post-flight repairs. A decision was expected by Wednesday.

The gouge is relatively small — 3 1/2 inches by 2 inches — and the damage is benign enough for Endeavour to fly safely home. But part of it penetrates through the protective thermal tiles, leaving just a thin layer of coated felt over the space shuttle's aluminum frame to keep out the more than 2,000-degree heat of re-entry. Fixing any resulting structural damage could be expensive and time-consuming.

To patch the gouge, spacewalking astronauts would have to perch on the end of the shuttle's 100-foot robotic arm and extension boom, be maneuvered under the spacecraft, and either apply protective black paint or squirt in a caulk-like goop.

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