JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--Commander Charles "Scorch" Hobaugh piloted the shuttle Atlantis to a precision docking with the International Space Station Wednesday after a spectacular back-flip maneuver 220 miles above the Atlantic Ocean that allowed the lab crew to inspect the ship's fragile heat shield.
Approaching from directly in front of the 670,000-pound lab complex, the shuttle's docking mechanism engaged its counterpart on the station at 10:51 a.m. CST to cap a two-day rendezvous as the two ships orbited southeast of Australia.
A few moments later, the docking mechanism pulled the two spacecraft firmly together. And after a series of leak checks were conducted, the hatches were opened around 12:28 p.m.
Waiting in the forward Harmoney module, European Space Agency commander Frank De Winne of Belgium, cosmonauts Maxim Suraev and Roman Romanenko, NASA astronauts Jeffrey Williams and Nicole Stott, and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk welcomed Hobaugh and his shuttle crewmates--pilot Barry Wilmore, Leland Melvin, and spacewalkers Robert Satcher, Michael Foreman, and Randolph Bresnik.
Facing a busy afternoon in space, the two crews shared brief hugs and handshakes before a mandatory safety briefing and the start of equipment transfers from the shuttle to the station.
Along with delivering 15 tons of spare components and supplies to the orbital complex, Atlantis will bring Stott back to Earth after three months in space. With Atlantis docked to the station, Stott is now considered a shuttle crew member and will start sleeping aboard the orbiter.
Approaching the station from behind and below, Hobaugh paused at a distance of roughly 600 feet directly below the lab complex as the two spacecraft passed high above South America. He then kicked off a computer-controlled 360-degree back-flip maneuver, exposing heat shield tiles on the orbiter's belly to the space station.
Stott and Williams, looking down through portholes in the Russian Zvezda command module, then snapped hundreds of digital images using powerful telephoto lenses to help engineers assess the health of the shuttle's heat shield.
Spectacular television images from the station showed Atlantis slowly flipping about as the shuttle passed over the coast of northeastern South America and out over the Atlantic Ocean. Zoomed-in views of the shuttle's belly revealed no obvious problems, but engineers will base their assessment on the digital images shot by Stott and Williams.
After the rendezvous pitch maneuver was complete, Hobaugh guided Atlantis up to a point directly in front of the space station before the final approach to docking.
The primary goal of the 129th shuttle mission is to deliver some 15 tons of spare components and equipment to the station to protect against failures after the shuttle is retired next year. The equipment is mounted on two Express Logistics Carrier pallets in Atlantis' cargo bay.
Mounted on the pallet's upper deck are a 600-pound control moment gyroscope, a solar array battery charge-discharge unit, a device to prevent electrical arcing between the station and the space environment, and a latching end effector for the station's robot arm. Mounted on the lower surface are a 550-pound nitrogen tank assembly, a 780-pound external cooling system pump module, and a 1,700-pound ammonia coolant tank.
Shuttle Flight Director Mike Sarafin said Atlantis completed the rendezvous in good shape. The only technical problem of any significance was a bandwidth issue that is slowing data transfers to and from the ground.
On the station side, engineers are continuing to troubleshoot a problem with the lab's water processing system, but Sarafin said enough stored water was available to avoid any near-term concern.