Technicians inspected the space shuttle Challenger in California yesterday and pronounced it in beautiful shape, cleaner than the first shuttle, the Columbia, ever was after a landing.

"It truly looks like they just rolled it out" of the hangar, said James Harrington, the shuttle ground operations manager. "I can't get over just how clean this ship is," he said, noting that Challenger received only superficial damage from launch last Monday and Saturday's flawless landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

Harrington attributed the lack of surface damage at least in part to a different route home that exposed Challenger to less intense heat during its reentry through the atmosphere.

The only problem of any significance, he said at a briefing at Edwards, was the insulation blankets on the ship's aft maneuvering rocket pods. He said there was no apparent damage to the ship's skin, but said engineers will have to come up with better insulation for the next flight, scheduled for early June.

"We feel like we've got a good shot at getting the vehicle turned around in this short period of time," he said. Harrington said Challenger is to be hoisted atop a 747 jumbo jet for a piggyback flight back to Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday.