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Astronauts inspect space shuttle in case of damage

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Astronauts inspect space shuttle in case of damage
By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn, Ap Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Atlantis' astronauts scoured their ship Tuesday for any signs of launch damage while pursuing the International Space Station.

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

The shuttle gradually was gaining on the station, and the two craft 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.

Flight director Mike Sarafin said the survey did not reveal any obvious problems, "but that was just based on my untrained eyeball." Experts have yet to go through the data, he said.

A quick look at the images from Monday's launch also shows 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.

The space agency has been extra cautious since the Columbia disaster nearly seven years ago. The left wing was punctured by a big chunk of foam insulation that came off the fuel tank at liftoff, causing the shuttle to break apart during re-entry. All seven astronauts were killed.

Officials believe three small foam pieces peeled away from Atlantis' tank Monday, but it happened too many minutes after liftoff to pose any danger.

Atlantis is delivering big spare parts to the space station — nearly 15 tons' worth.

It's an 11-day flight, which will keep the crew in orbit over Thanksgiving.

"Congratulations on a beautiful, flawless launch, Atlantis!" Mission Control told the crew in a wake-up message. "Now the fun begins."

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