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Atlantis streaks to successful space station linkup
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: November 18, 2009
Commander Charles "Scorch" Hobaugh piloted the shuttle Atlantis to a gentle 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 photograph the ship's heat shield in a now-routine inspection.
Approaching from directly in front of the 670,000-pound lab complex, the shuttle's docking mechanism engaged its counterpart on the station at 11:51 a.m. EST to cap a two-day rendezvous as the two ships orbited southeast of Australia.
"Station, Houston, Atlantis, capture confirmed," a shuttle astronaut radioed.
A few moments later, after waiting for residual motion to damp out, the docking mechanism pulled the two spacecraft firmly together. The crew planned a series of leak checks before opening hatches around 1:48 p.m.
Waiting to greet Hobaugh and his crewmates - pilot Barry Wilmore, Leland Melvin and spacewalkers Robert Satcher, Michael Foreman and Randolph Bresnik - were 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.
Along with delivering 15 tons of spare components and supplies to the space station, 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.
"And Scorch, I think I have my ticket all ready and stamped, waiting for you guys when you get here," she radioed before the docking.
"Who is this?" Hobaugh teased.
"It's your favorite passenger," Stott replied.
"All right, looking forward to it, Nicole, good to be talking to you."
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. Piloting the shuttle from the aft flight deck, Hobaugh then flew the 140,000-pound spaceplane to a flawless docking at a relative velocity of just one-tenth of a foot per second.
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