Technology Science - Shuttle crew checks for damage on final mission's 1st day

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Astronauts on the final voyage of the space shuttle's 30-year program spent their first full day in orbit checking out Atlantis's heat shield for damage.

The crew used the Canadian robot arm to examine the vulnerable shield to see if any tiles suffered debris strikes from Friday's launch at Cape Canaveral, Fla. They did not discover any problems on their first viewing of the shield.

In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed when it returned to Earth because of damage to the protective tiles during liftoff.

The final mission is an emotional one for NASA employees as the shuttle program will be retired. The five space shuttles have ferried 355 astronauts in space in 134 missions.

Rocket scientist Gerry Mulberry who worked for the space program for 30 years, recalled in an interview with CBC News Network on Saturday that his first job was as a quality inspector for the first shuttle flight.

"You think about going into space [and] you had to pinch yourself every once in awhile. It was a dream come true," Mulberry said from his Florida home.

Mission's end 'a little hard to take'

Mulberry said his co-workers had hoped the shuttle program would continue until 2020, coinciding with the final year of the International Space Station program.

"It was kind of a sad thing [to watch the final launch]," he said. "[I was] trying to take it all in, enjoy it, the beauty of it and then realizing that it will never be seen again. It is a little hard to take."

Mulberry will be one of thousands losing their job. He said he's planning to stay in the area and hopes to work with local Orlando-based companies building jets.

Atlantis carries NASA astronauts Chris Ferguson, the mission commander, shuttle pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus. They are scheduled to dock at the International Space Station at 11:06 a.m. ET Sunday.

Atlantis carries a year's worth of supplies â€Â" more than 3,600 kilograms â€Â" for the International Space Station. It will also bring up a system that will be used by Canada's Dextre robot to test a system for refuelling and repairing spacecraft and satellites in space. When it returns, it will bring back to Earth a failed ammonia pump module to help NASA better understand what caused the pump to stop working

Following its return from the 12-day mission, Atlantis will go on display at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The two other retired shuttles are heading to museums in Los Angeles and Virginia.

With files from The Associated Press

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