Endeavour arrives at space station

Saturday, July 18, 2009

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle and space station hooked up Friday after a round-the-world chase, making for the biggest crowd ever gathered together in orbit -- 13 Earthlings.

Endeavour docked at the international space station as the two craft soared 220 miles above the Australian coast.

Once the hatches popped open, the seven shuttle astronauts floated into the space station one by one and embraced their six station colleagues. It was a floating jumble of dark shirts, beige pants and shorts and white socks.

"Welcome," said the station's skipper, Russian Gennady Padalka, positioned at the entrance.

"Thirteen is a pretty big number, but it's going to be an outstanding visit for us," said shuttle commander Mark Polansky. "We are just thrilled to be here."

Besides being the biggest space gathering ever, it was the most diverse: seven Americans, two Russians, two Canadians, one Japanese and one Belgian. Twelve men, one woman. Four medical doctors. And engineers and pilots galore.

The station population doubled at the end of May, and this was the first shuttle visit since then. Although 13 people have been in orbit before, they were scattered in separate spacecraft. The old under-the-same-roof crowd record was 10.

Their first team effort comes today, when two of the shuttle astronauts venture out on the first of five planned spacewalks to help hook up a porch for Japan's space station lab. The porch will be used to hold experiments outside the station.

Earlier Friday afternoon, as it was closing in for the linkup, Endeavour performed a backflip from 600 feet out so the station crew could photograph its entire surface and uncover any severe launch damage. Endeavour's fuel tank lost more foam insulation than usual during Wednesday's launch, and some of the smaller pieces struck the shuttle, leaving a series of dings.

NASA managers say the dings appear to be superficial and pose no threat to the shuttle. But they want to make sure they don't miss something serious, as was the case during Columbia's doomed flight in 2003. A hole in a wing the size of a plate caused Columbia to break apart during re-entry. Falling foam was to blame.

Polansky guided Endeavour through the routine 360-degree somersault. The process lasted more than eight minutes, the amount of time it took the shuttle to zoom across the Atlantic from Brazil's shoreline to the Western Sahara coast.

Two of the station crew snapped a few hundred digital pictures and quickly began downloading them to flight controllers for analysis.

"The bird looks beautiful from here," called out Michael Barratt, one of the station photographers.

The bulk of the lost foam peeled away from the central area of the tank in 6-inch strips, six minutes after liftoff when it's too late to pose any threat. That part of the tank normally does not shed like that, and NASA wants to understand what happened before launching the next shuttle in another month.

Endeavour will remain at the space station until July 28. Japan's Koichi Wakata, in orbit since March, will be aboard the shuttle when it leaves. His replacement, American Timothy Kopra, was more than a month late because of launch delays.

On the Net:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission(underscore)pages/shuttle/main/index.html

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: