The damage to space shuttle Endeavour's heat shield during its ascent yesterday does not appear to be dangerous, NASA officials said today in a press briefing. Multiple debris strikes occurred as pieces of foam insulation from the external fuel tank fell off as the orbiter rose into the sky, but Endeavour appears not to have suffered significant damage.

"From an orbiter standpoint, there is nothing that we have seen on the orbiter that causes us any concern," space shuttle program manager John Shannon said. He added that the primary concern was not for this mission but for the prevention of similar occurrences in future launches. A photograph of the external tank after separation from the shuttle showed roughly a dozen areas where the foam insulation was missing.

Shannon's comments came as the Endeavour crew wrapped up its standard-procedure examination of the shuttle's thermal-protection tiles. That inspection, conducted with a boom-mounted sensor on the orbiter's robotic arm, became part of shuttle protocol after the Columbia disaster in 2003, when the shuttle broke up on atmospheric re-entry following heat-shield damage during liftoff.

May's shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope saw debris strikes during the climb to orbit as well, but the robotic-arm inspection reassured mission controllers that the damage was minor.

Photo of Endeavour's external fuel tank falling away after launch: NASA TV via SPACE.COM