A loose seal on a cargo bay door presented an unexpected chore Friday for NASA engineers on the ground, as well as the prospect of a spacewalk for two Columbia astronauts.
A long piece of weatherstripping came loose along the door covering the bay during launch and landing.The 60-foot-long doors must close tightly for the fiery re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere or the shuttle could burn up. If the doors close properly, but the loose seal causes a gap, the shuttle could be damaged.
Engineers have studied the problem since it was discovered shortly after Wednesday's launch and are considering sending two of the seven astronauts on board out to fix it.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers planned to duplicate the problem Friday on the shuttle Discovery at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
"There are no real concerns that we couldn't today, right now if we needed to, crush that seal and latch the doors down," NASA flight director Randy Stone said Thursday. "But it's always the better part of valor to analyze things in their entirety."
Several white blankets of insulation also came loose in the payload bay, probably at the same time the seal was loosened, in a rush of trapped cargo bay air into the vacuum of space.
If the crew can close the doors tight enough, a spacewalk may not be necessary. But if need be, astronauts James Bagian and Tamara Jernigan could take a spacewalk as early as Sunday, Stone said. They would either snap the seal back in place or snip it off. It should take about 11/2 hours.
Bagian is part of the four-member research team conducting comprehensive medical tests in Spacelab, a compartment the size of a small bus stored in the bay and connected by a tunnel to the shuttle's crew compartment.
The astronauts worked in the lab for the third day in a row Friday.