Discovery Crew Checks

For Damage

* Space shuttle Discovery hooked up with the international space station yesterday, but not before doing a somersault.

The flip was necessary so that astronauts aboard the space station could take pictures of Discovery's belly to check for damage. Part of a heat-shielding tile on the underside of Discovery came off during liftoff Tuesday, but scientists at space agency NASA don't think the damage was serious.

What was serious, NASA scientists say, was that a piece of foam fell from the big orange external fuel tank on Tuesday. A piece of foam hitting a wing caused the damage that led to the shuttle Columbia breaking apart as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003.

Tuesday's launch was the first time a shuttle had been sent into space since the Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts.

The space agency thought it had solved the problem that caused large pieces of foam to break off during takeoff. The piece that came off Tuesday -- more than two feet long and weighing about a pound -- did not hit Discovery. But NASA said it won't launch future shuttles until the problem is solved.

Shuttles are not expected to fly beyond 2010. President Bush has announced a plan to build spacecraft to send astronauts to the moon by 2020 -- and eventually to Mars.

Discovery is scheduled to return to Earth on Aug. 7.

The shuttle Discovery shows its belly to the international space station.