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Shuttle tiles tell tales

Now you too can be a space shuttle tile inspector. A new collection of shuttle imagery, offered through our portal to Space World, lets you click through the detailed pictures of the shuttle Endeavour's underbelly that were taken 10 days ago from the international space station. NASA analysts will be making an even closer inspection of the imagery, as well as photos taken after landing, to decide what needs to be done for future missions.

The NASA pictures are woven together into a three-dimensional mosaic using Microsoft's Photosynth software - and you'll have to download a plug-in to navigate through the collection, as we explained a couple of weeks ago. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)

The first picture in the collection shows the much-talked-about gouge in Endeavour's tiles as a whitish chink in the armor, toward the lower left corner of the frame. You can zoom in on the chink for a closer look, or scan through the surrounding images to get a sense of scale. One thing you'll quickly find is that the gouge is not the only damage done: There are other chinks downwind, which NASA's experts decided were not serious enough to worry about.

If you're not in the mood to download another software plug-in, you can still compare NASA's ultra-high-resolution views from orbit and from the landing strip. The post-landing view is so sharp you can spot the gap fillers wedged between the surrounding tiles.

The damage, which was traced to foam insulation flying off the shuttle tank's fuel-line brackets, signals that NASA still hasn't fully solved the debris problem that led to the demise of the shuttle Columbia and its crew four years ago. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, acknowledged that the problem may not be fully solved even by the time the shuttle fleet is due for retirement in 2010. "We'll still expect to see things come off," he told reporters.

But NASA's aim is to reduce the flying foam to such a degree that it can never pose a threat to the crew or the spaceship - and Gerstenmaier contended that the agency is close to that point. Agency officials have told NBC News that the shuttle's fuel tank can be modified once again to reduce the risk from the fuel-line brackets, in time for the next launch window in October. Whether or not NASA can make that schedule, it's clear that flyaway foam has once again become the top issue hanging over the shuttle program.

Here are a couple of other bits of unfinished business relating to Endeavour's mission:

  • What about that nicked glove that caused NASA to cut a spacewalk short last week? "We'll be very rigorous on the glove problem," Gerstenmaier said today. It's not yet clear exactly what caused the nick, but Gerstenmaier noted that spacewalkers can fall back on a Plan B:  backup gloves that are available for use in case the primary pair poops out in the course of a mission. There's also a Plan C: using Russian spacesuits if necessary.
  • This mission marked the fruition of schoolteacher Barbara Morgan's 22-year quest to fly in space - but when will the next space teacher get his or her turn? Three educator astronauts are still waiting in the wings, without a mission assignment, and it's questionable whether they'll get to fly before the shuttle fleet's retirement. At the same time, a private-sector Teachers in Space program, backed by the Space Frontier Foundation, is gearing up to begin accepting applications in October.

"We call on NASA to fly the three remaining educator astronauts as soon as possible and to give them more time to teach lessons from space," foundation chairman Bob Werb said today in a news release. "After flying, they should return to the classroom, alongside the astronaut teachers we will be creating."