CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Endeavour's astronauts examined their rocket ship for launch damage Tuesday as they pursued the international space station to deliver a giant robot and the first piece of a new Japanese lab.
Specialists on the ground, meanwhile, scrutinized launch images of a possible impact to Endeavour's nose.
In a rare middle-of-the-night launch, the shuttle blasted off with an almost blinding flash. But the darkness meant fewer pictures than usual to look for signs of possible damage to the spacecraft during the climb to orbit.
NASA knew the nighttime launch would come at a photographic cost. But past successes at preventing the shuttle's fuel tank from losing big chunks of foam insulation during liftoff and the accuracy of heat shield inspections convinced managers the night launch was a good choice.
A new photographic flash system embedded in a cavity in Endeavour's belly helped illuminate the external fuel tank as it dropped away, empty, eight minutes into the flight.
Cameras captured a possible strike to Endeavour's nose 10 seconds after liftoff. NASA officials refused to speculate, saying more analysis was needed.
In addition, a significant piece of foam or other debris came off Endeavour's tank just over a minute into the flight; it appeared to miss the right wing.
To be certain of that and to check for other possible damage, Endeavour's astronauts conducted a slow-motion laser inspection late Tuesday of the shuttle wings and nose, the most vulnerable areas. The inspection has been standard procedure ever since the 2003 Columbia disaster in which seven astronauts died.<
It was the first major chore of the 16-day flight, the longest space station mission ever planned for a shuttle. The astronauts, working from inside, used a 100-foot laser-tipped boom for the meticulous survey, which was expected to last into the wee hours of Wednesday. today.
"We had an exciting trip to orbit ... and we're looking forward to our first full day in orbit," astronaut Michael Foreman told Mission Control after waking up in the late afternoon.
The three space station residents had to drastically shift their work and sleep hours in order to synch up their schedule with that of the shuttle crew, due to arrive at the orbiting outpost late Wednesday night.
"I'd say good morning, but I don't know what time of day it is," the space station's commander, Peggy Whitson, told flight controllers late Tuesday afternoon. She said she and her crewmates were feeling fine, but added: "We'll see how we do at the end of the day."
The 10 space travelers face a staggering amount of work once their spacecraft link up. Five spacewalks are planned during Endeavour's visit, the first one getting under way Thursday night.
The spacewalking teams must assemble Canada's robot, Dextre, which was packed aboard Endeavour in nine pieces, and attach a Japanese storage compartment to the space station. It is the first installment of Japan's massive Kibo lab, which means Hope.