JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--Manually flying the shuttle Endeavour from the aft flight deck, commander Mark Polansky guided the 120-ton orbiter to a gentle docking with the International Space Station Friday as the two spacecraft sailed 220 miles above northern Australia at five miles per second.
With Endeavour's arrival, the space station now boasts a record combined crew of 13--six full-time station crew members and seven shuttle astronauts. One of them, Timothy Kopra, officially joined the Expedition 20 crew a few hours later, replacing outgoing flight engineer Koichi Wakata.
"The crew is very happy to welcome Endeavour's crew on board space station," said station commander Gennady Padalka. "It's a remarkable event, not only for us but for the whole space program because this is the next great stage of space station assembly. Right now, we've got together 13 people on board space station. Welcome."
"Thank you, Gennady," Polansky replied. "The crew of STS-127 is extremely happy to be here. Thirteen is a pretty big number, but it's going to be an outstanding visit for us. We're happy to go ahead and deliver Col. Kopra to his new home for a while, and maybe Koichi is looking forward to a hot shower back home. We'll make this short because we have a lot of work to do, but we are just thrilled to be here. Thank you."
Running a few minutes ahead of schedule, Polansky guided Endeavour to a smooth docking at the front end of the space station at 1:47 p.m. EDT.
"Docked successfully w/ISS a few minutes ago," Polansky said in a Twitter message downlinked to the Internet. "It will take awhile before we can open the hatches, but it's great to be here."
Two hours later, after leak checks to ensure a tight seal, a final hatch between the shuttle and the station was opened at 3:48 p.m.
After ringing the ship's bell in the Harmony module, Padalka and his crewmates --Wakata, NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk--welcomed the shuttle astronauts aboard.
Polansky, Kopra, pilot Douglas Hurley, Canadian flight engineer Julie Payette, David Wolf, Christopher Cassidy, and Thomas Marshburn then floated into the Harmony module for enthusiastic hugs and handshakes, creating an unfamiliar traffic jam as all 13 mingled in weightlessness.
After a safety briefing from the station crew, the astronauts went their separate ways, beginning work to transfer equipment from the shuttle to the space station, including spacesuits and tools needed for a spacewalk Saturday, the first of five planned for Endeavour's mission.
Late in the day, the shuttle crew was asked to perform a rocket firing to raise the shuttle-station complex by about a mile to avoid an unidentified piece of space debris that might otherwise have passed too close for comfort.
Engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, meanwhile, are continuing their assessment of launch and on-orbit imagery to determine the health of Endeavour's heat shield.
Before docking, with the shuttle about 600 feet directly below the space station, Polansky guided the orbiter through a 360-degree nine-minute back flip as the two spacecraft crossed the Atlantic Ocean, allowing the lab crew to photograph the orbiter's protective heat shield with 400mm and 800mm telephoto lenses.
Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon said a quick look at photographs shot during the pitch-around maneuver show the orbiter's heat shield appears to be in good condition with no obvious signs of damage beyond two areas of coating loss spotted during launch Wednesday.
But it will take engineers at Johnson another day to fully analyze the 300 or so digital images shot by Padalka and Barratt.
Endeavour's external tank lost an unusual amount of foam insulation from its central "intertank" region during the climb to space, creating debris that struck the shuttle in at least two areas during the period when the shuttle is most vulnerable to impact damage.
Engineers do not believe the damage seen Wednesday is serious, but as with all post-Columbia shuttle missions, NASA managers will not give the ship a clean bill of health until the ongoing analysis is complete.
UPDATED at 7 p.m. EDT: Adding debris avoidance maneuver; Kopra officially replaces Wakata on station crew; Shannon says heat shield inspection turns up no additional problems.