After hailinga near-perfect liftoff for the space shuttle Atlantis, NASA now has some concerns about the craft's delicate heat-protection system.

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Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the pad at Kennedy Space Center on Friday ((Terry Renna/Associated Press))

Photos taken by the crew after Friday night's launch show a small exposed area in thermal blankets on the left side ofthe shuttle.

The area where the 10-centimetre tear is located isn't prone to heat problems on re-entry, said NASA spokeswoman Louise Parker.

Astronauts were using cameras mounted on the end of theCanadarm to inspect the damage. NASA managers said initial checks found nothing to worry about.

"There's not a whole lot of concern just yet," Parker said Saturday morning.

The seven-member crew wasalsopreparing fordocking with the International Space Station on Sunday.

During the 11-day flight, the astronauts will deliver a new segment and a pair of solar panels to the orbiting outpost. They're scheduled to do three spacewalks — on Monday, Wednesday and Friday — to install the new equipment and retract an old solar panel.

The first shuttle launch of the year helped put NASA back on track after a run of bad luck and scandal on the ground during the first half of the year.

NASA plans at least 13 more shuttle missions to finish work on the space station.

In the past few months, NASA has seen:

  • The arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak in an alleged plot to kidnap her rival for a shuttle pilot's affections.
  • A murder-suicide at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
  • The derailment of a train carrying rocket-booster segments for future shuttle launches.

More recently, NASA administrator Michael Griffin has come under fire for suggesting that global warming may not be a problem.


With files from the Associated Press