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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA will hold off launching any more space shuttles until it understands why strips of insulating foam peeled off the fuel tank used by shuttle Endeavour, the U.S. space agency shuttle program manager said on Thursday.
Endeavour arrived safely in orbit after Wednesday's liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida though video and images of the launch showed about a dozen pieces of debris flying off the fuel tank
No experiments are aboard the new platform yet. Those will be installed later during Endeavour's planned 11-day stay. The crew Sunday transferred a pallet of spare parts over to the station, using robot arms aboard both the shuttle and station.
NASA also laid out plans on Sunday to test the foam on the external fuel tank earmarked for shuttle Discovery's launch next month to the space station. NASA has seven missions after Endeavour's to complete construction of the $100 billion orbital outpost and retire the shuttle fleet.
Endeavour's tank shed an unusually large amount of the insulating foam in a way not previously seen during shuttle launches.
NASA redesigned the tanks and implemented inspections after losing shuttle Columbia in 2003 from a foam debris impact during launch. The resulting damage to the heat shield caused the shuttle to break apart as it re-entered the atmosphere for landing. All seven astronauts aboard died in the accident.
Shuttle program manager John Shannon told Reuters the pieces of foam lost from Endeavour's tank were tiny compared to the 2.2-pound (1 kg) chunk that impacted Columbia's wing.
Endeavour's tank also is believed to have shed most of its debris late during ascent, when aerodynamic forces were too weak to slam the foam into the ship and cause damage.
"It looks like this foam, and the way it came off, would not have been an issue. We are still doing the reconstruction," Shannon told Reuters in an e-mail.
Before Discovery is cleared to launch, NASA will need to be sure it understands why Endeavour's tank shed foam and be convinced that a similar event would not occur earlier during ascent when it could do harm.