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Woodpeckers damage space shuttle

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 1 -- Wildlife managers Thursday said they were baffled by woodpeckers that have poked holes in insulation on the space shuttle Discovery, damage that NASA managers are hoping to repair before next week's scheduled launch. Technicians have found as many as 78 holes, some 4 inches in diameter, pecked in the foam insulation on the shuttle's external fuel tank and in the insulation on the solid rocket booster joints, said Kennedy Space Center spokesman Bruce Buckingham Thursday morning. 'Right now it doesn't look like they'll need to roll back the shuttle,' he said. Currently the Space Center estimates that repairs may take one or two days, he said. The launch remains scheduled for June 8. 'Basically it depends on how well the repair goes,' said Buckingham. If the launch is delayed past June 10, NASA will likely shorten the planned eight-day mission to five days to allow for the long-awaited launch targeted for June 24 for a mission to dock with the Russian MIR space station. To start repairing the Discovery, workers moved cranes out to the launch pad overnight to reach the more accessible woodpecker punctures. Some of the holes lie so far out of reach that workers will move a 20-story crane with a long boom onto the pad Friday for access to the highest damaged areas. The launch facility is using loud horns to try to frighten away the birds. The woodpeckers, called yellow-shafted or northern flickers, are common east of the Rocky Mountains.

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The underside of their wings has characteristic yellowish feathers, and the back of their head sports a red crescent. What prompts the birds to peck foam insulation remains a puzzle for which easy answers make no sense, said Kathy Whaley, assistant manager of the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds the launch facilities. 'Normally, pecking is to find food or to establish territory,' she told United Press International. However, pecking foam does not yield the wood-loving insects the birds find when they peck tree bark. Nor does hammering on foam make the deep drumming that signals territory occupancy when a bird bangs on a hollow tree or a house gutter. Drilling holes for a nest also does not seem a very probable motive to Whaley. This woodpecker attack is not the first interaction between the space facility and refuge's wildlife, she said. Woodpeckers attacked another shuttle, in 1981, but did not delay the mission. An osprey nested on a communications tower, disrupting NASA message traffic. Space center managers waited until the birds finished using the nest, then ripped it down. The ospreys moved to another site for their next nest. The refuge also gets occasional pleas for help from space center employees who cannot get into their cars because an alligator has strayed from the refuge waterway and hidden in a parking lot. Refuge personnel go to the scene and persuade the alligator to return home. Launch activities do not seem to upset the creatures living in the refuge, including endangered wood storks, Florida scrub jays, West Indian manatees and 13 other species now on the U.S. list of threatened and endangered species. 'I've seen video footage of a great egret feeding in a marsh near a launch,' said Whaley. 'It looked up, turned its head like 'oh there goes another one' and went back to feeding.' (Written by Susan Milius in Washington, and Irene Brown in Cape Canaveral, Fla.; edited by Larry Schuster, UPI science and technology editor)

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