Discovery Crew Docks Safely With Space Station
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HOUSTON — After an elegant backflip 209 miles above the Earth’s surface, space shuttle Discovery docked snugly and gently with the international space station over the South Pacific Ocean yesterday.
“Capture confirmed,” the shuttle mission commander, Steven Lindsey, said as Discovery came to a halt at 10:52 a.m. Eastern Time.
During the “rendezvous pitch maneuver” about an hour earlier, Mr. Lindsey presented Discovery’s belly to the space station, cruising 600 feet above, so station Commander Pavel Vinogradov and Flight Engineer JeffreyWilliams could take 350 digital pictures of the orbiter’s heat shielding.
NASA engineers were analyzing the photographs to check for gouges, scars, or other damage to Discovery’s thermal tiles as well for protruding shims,or “gap fillers,” from between the tiles. Shuttle astronauts found a loose gap filler during on-board wing inspections Wednesday.
Once on board, astronauts unlimbered Discovery’s sensor boom and began preparations for a close inspection Friday of “areas of concern” discovered during analysis of Tuesday’s launch and the subsequent in-space inspections.
Flight Engineer Tony Ceccacci told reporters at Houston’s Johnson Space Center that analysts had found nothing unexpected so far: “It’s boring to us that it’s quiet,” Mr. Ceccacci said. “But that’s a good thing.”
Impact damage caused by foam insulation from the shuttle’s external fuel tank has been the program’s principal safety concern since tank debris breached Columbia’s heat shielding during launch in 2003, causing it to disintegrate during reentry.
Discovery, with five men and two women aboard, is scheduled to spend 12 days in space. Mr. Ceccacci said Discovery’s electrical fuel supply was “trending a lot better than we thought,” making an extra day all but certain. Shuttle astronauts will use the time to test onboard repair techniques.
As one of its first orders of business yesterday, astronauts checked out European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter’s Russian equipment so he could join the station crew, bringing the complement to three for the first time since 2003. The Russian gear must operate properly so he can return to Earth aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.
“It is a full house here,” Mr.Williams said after Mr. Reiter formally made the transition in mid-afternoon. “The climate here has changed significantly.”
Discovery followed what appeared to be a near-flawless launch Tuesday with a near-flawless docking yesterday. Plans to use sunlight to heat the fuel of a small non-functioning thruster in the shuttle’s stern “worked perfectly,” Mr. Ceccacci said, and Mr. Lindsey had all six thrusters when he began his final approach.
Both the shuttle and space station are orbiting the Earth about 17,500 miles an hour, but Mr. Lindsey was closing at a relative speed of 1/10 foot a second as Discovery drew to a point 600 feet directly below the station. The orbiter came into position just as both spacecraft finished crossing the Atlantic, zoomed past the Rock of Gibraltar and flew over Spain at an altitude of 209 miles.
At 9:51 a.m., Mr. Lindsey began gently to flip Discovery at a rate of 3/4 degree a second, a maneuver designed specifically to enable the station crew to get a photographic look at the condition of the orbiter’s underbelly.