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U.S. Studying Possible Tile Damage On Shuttle

27 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Officials with the U.S. space agency NASA today are studying a tiny piece of tile and a larger piece of debris that came off the space shuttle "Discovery" as it blasted off on 26 July during its first flight after the 2003 "Columbia" disaster.

NASA Flight Operations Manager John Shannon says the piece of tile was about 3.8 centimeters in size and appeared to come off the right landing gear on the nose. The origin of the debris shown in a separate video at a press briefing was unknown, but it appeared to have fallen free as the booster rockets broke away without touching the shuttle.

Shannon said is too early to say if the seven-member crew of "Discovery" will be in danger when the shuttle returns to Earth in 11 days.

The space shuttle "Columbia" exploded while returning to Earth on 1 February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board. The tragedy was blamed on a small piece of insulation that broke off after liftoff and struck the orbiter's left wing, causing a crack that allowed hot gases to penetrate the structure as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.