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Shuttle Atlantis glides to smooth space station docking

Carrying a Russian docking module and critical spare parts, the shuttle hooks up with the International Space Station on Sunday to wrap up a two-day orbital chase.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--The shuttle Atlantis, carrying a Russian docking module and critical spare parts, glided to a smooth docking with the International Space Station on Sunday, capping a two-day orbital chase that began with blastoff Friday.

Piloting the shuttle from the aft flight deck, commander Kenneth Ham deftly guided the 120-ton spacecraft to a picture-perfect docking with the lab's forward port at 9:28 a.m. CDT as the 1-million-pound shuttle-station complex sailed 220 miles above the South Pacific Ocean.

The shuttle Atlantis, moments after docking with the International Space Station Sunday. NASA TV

"Houston and station, capture confirmed," pilot Dominic Antonelli radioed as the shuttle's payload bay docking mechanism engaged its station counterpart.

"Atlantis, station, ISS is in free drift," Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi replied. "And welcome to station." A few moments later, flight engineer Timothy Creamer rang the ship's bell in the forward Harmony module to formally announce Atlantis' arrival.

It took a bit less than two hours to firmly lock the two spacecraft together and complete leak checks before hatches were opened at 11:18 a.m. CDT and the station crew--Noguchi, Creamer, Expedition 23 commander Oleg Kotov, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Alexander Skvortsov, and Mikhail Kornienko--welcomed their shuttle colleagues aboard.

"And Houston, station, on the big loop, with Atlantis crew on board ISS," Kotov called down as the two crews shared hugs and handshakes in the forward Harmony module. "It is our pleasure to welcome them and to see them here. It's a really big event for us, bringing us a new Russian module to station."

With the exception of Michael Good, veteran of a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, the rest of the Atlantis crew--Ham, Antonelli, Stephen Bowen, Piers Sellers and Garrett Reisman--are veterans of at least one previous space station visit.

"For almost all of us on board Atlantis, we've been here before but it's bigger than we remember and, speaking for myself, better than I remember," Ham said. "I love this place!"

After a short safety briefing from Kotov, the astronauts got back to work, transferring equipment to the lab and gearing up for a spacewalk Monday, the first of three planned for the mission.

Just before 3 p.m. CDT, Sellers and Caldwell Dyson used the station's robot arm to pull a cargo pallet out of the shuttle's payload bay so it could be mounted on a stowage fixture on the front side of the station's solar power truss.

The cargo carrier holds a spare Ku-band dish antenna that will be installed by Reisman and Bowen during Monday's spacewalk, along with an equipment mounting platform that will be attached to a Canadian robot arm extension.

The cargo carrier also holds six 375-pound batteries that will be installed during the mission's second and third spacewalks.

The shuttle Atlantis, performing a backflip maneuver over southern Europe to expose the ship's heat shield tiles to cameras aboard the space station. NASA TV

Ham and company began the shuttle's final approach to the station with a rocket firing at 7:40 a.m. CDT to begin closing the final 9.2 miles. Moving in to a point about 600 feet directly below the lab complex, Ham guided Atlantis through a spectacular 360-degree backflip maneuver as the spaceplane sailed across southern Europe, exposing the shuttle's underside to the station.

Kotov, Noguchi, and Creamer, using digital cameras equipped with powerful telephoto lenses, photographed the heat shield tiles on the belly of the orbiter while Caldwell Dyson focused on the shuttle's left wing leading edge panels, snapping 149 pictures.

The shuttle's carbon composite nose cap and wing leading-edge panels, which experience the most extreme heating during re-entry, were inspected Saturday. But problems with a pan-and-tilt mechanism on the end of the shuttle's inspection boom forced the crew to use backup procedures and they were unable to complete the left wing.

Lead shuttle Flight Director Mike Sarafin said inspection procedures may be added to the crew's timeline later, depending on the quality of the photos shot by Caldwell Dyson during Sunday's approach.

"All of the images, roughly 400 digital still images, are on the ground, currently being assessed and analyzed," Sarafin said. "We expect those folks to meet later this evening to decide whether we need to go off and gather additional imagery to clear Atlantis' heat shield or if we have everything we need.

"We're looking at backup methods to use the shuttle's robotic arm in the event some of those activities do require arm support from the shuttle," he said. "The activities we have ahead of us tomorrow, with our first spacewalk as well as installation of the [Russian] Rassvet module, are going to be performed as planned. So any changes to the mission timeline will occur after the module is installed on flight day five."

Late last week, flight controllers began monitoring a piece of unidentified space debris that was expected to pass within a few miles of the station shortly after the shuttle docking.

Saturday evening, after additional radar tracking showed the debris would not pass close enough to cause any problems, plans for a possible avoidance maneuver were called off. Sarafin said Sunday the actual miss distance was about 10 statute miles, well outside the station's safety zone.

Updated at 2:30 p.m. CDT: Added quotes and details; mission status briefing.