HOUSTON – Danville native and astronaut Joe Tanner spent part of last week at Moron Air Force Base in Spain, one of the space shuttle program's alternate landing sites in case of a launch emergency, as part of the Endeavour's launch team.
NASA normally assigns astronauts to various locations along the launch range to assist with any unforeseen needs.
Today, Tanner and another astronaut will take a dip in a training pool, to simulate how Endeavour's astronauts would make repairs to tiles on the shuttle's belly should the decision be made to do so.
"We had pool time scheduled for training anyway," Tanner said from his office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday. "What we will be doing has just changed."
Foam insulation from an external fuel tank, ice or some other object struck the underside of the shuttle during take-off, gouging the vehicle's belly.
NASA's mission management spokesman has said the damage doesn't represent a threat that could cause the catastrophic loss of the entire shuttle. Instead, the gouge could leave the shuttle vulnerable to extensive structural damage during re-entry, necessitating time-consuming postflight repairs, according to The Associated Press.
Tanner was involved with a meeting Monday evening of the mission management team, which consists of astronauts and engineers, to decide what the best course of action would be.
"First of all, our going-in position is that we don't want to do anything we don't have to do," Tanner said of any possible repairs. "The tiles are so fragile that any wrong moves could do more damage."
Tanner, a veteran of four shuttle flights, and a fellow astronaut will fine-tune the selected repair technique underwater to simulate weightlessness.
On Tuesday, Tanner planned to spend time in a virtual reality lab working on the technique, to review the tools that would be needed for repair and to set up the equipment for the underwater simulation.
"We will go through the entire repair process, using and exchanging tools," Tanner explained. "It's like a doctor and his assistant exchanging instruments during a delicate surgery. Everything will be choreographed, then written up."
After the exercise, the scenario would be sent to the space shuttle crew, if necessary.
"We'll send it up and they'll have a couple of days to chew on it," he said. "But all of this still depends on a decision as to whether the repair is needed at all."
Tanner considers his trip to Spain and today's exercise "just being part of the team."