Discovery arrives at space station after two day chase
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 5, 2006
With commander Steve Lindsey at the controls, the shuttle Discovery glided to a smooth, picture-perfect docking with the international space station today as the two spacecraft sailed high above the South Pacific Ocean.
During final approach, Lindsey flew the shuttle through a spectacular 360-degree pitch-around maneuver as the spaceplane sailed above the Rock of Gibraltar and then central Europe at five miles per second, exposing the ship's fragile heat shield to cameras operated by station commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeff Williams.
As the belly rotated into view, no obvious signs of damage were seen in downlinked television views, but flight controllers won't know for sure until studying much-higher-resolution digital images shot by the station crew. All of the images were downlinked to mission control within two hours or so of docking.
Gap fillers are heat-resistant spacers between tiles that prevent abrasive contact when the shuttle's skin flexes and vibrates. One gap filler was seen earlier, sticking up about a half inch near the back of the left wing. During Discovery's flight last July, two protruding gap fillers had to be removed by astronaut Stephen Robinson during an already-planned spacewalk. The gap filler spotted earlier in the current mission is in a more aerodynamically benign position and may not need any similar attention.
Docking occurred at 10:52 a.m. when Discovery's payload bay docking module engaged its counterpart on the front end of the Destiny laboratory module.
"Docking confirmed," a Discovery astronaut radioed.
"Discovery, Houston. Station free drift is confirmed," mission control replied.
Vinogradov and Williams shook hands and smiled broadly for cameras in the lab module as Discovery settled into port. After leak checks, a final hatch leading into the Destiny module was opened at 12:30 p.m. and Vinogradov and Williams welcomed the shuttle astronauts on board with hugs, smiles and handshakes.
European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter seemed especially pleased, floating in front of a camera, grinning broadly and flashing an enthusiastic thumbs up to flight controllers on Earth. Reiter will remain aboard the station when Discovery departs, boosting the lab's crew size back to three for the first time since downsizing after the Columbia accident.
"Everybody's having fun, I don't see a sad person in the crowd," joked Williams.
He and Vinogradov then gave the shuttle visitors a safety briefing before the combined crews got down to work, starting the long process of transferring supplies and equipment from the shuttle to the station.
Jim Voss, who spent 163 days aboard the station in 2001 as a member of the lab's second full-time crew, said Discovery's arrival provided an emotional lift for Vinogradov and Williams, who were launched to the outpost in late March.
"It's greatly anticipated when a new crew's coming up on board," Voss said in an interview with CBS News. "The station crew hasn't seen anyone for several months and just seeing another face in person is just a wonderful thing.
"So you spend several days getting psyched up for them coming on board. And when they get there, you see on television there's a lot of hugging and smiling. Well, that's very genuine, you're really happy to see those people come up there. It's not only that you're seeing old friends, but they're bringing up a lot of supplies and other things you need to continue your work on the space station."
Voss said Reiter is an especially welcome addition to the crew.
"It's really special having them bring up a third crew member," he said. "They've been just the two of them on board, Pavel and Jeff, and there is a real difference when you have another person you can chat with. And Thomas is a particularly good person to come up because he is fluent in Russian and English. So he'll be able to speak with both the other crew members fluently and he'll really add to that social dynamic that they have on board."
The German astronaut, on board as part of a commercial contract between ESA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, also will add to the crew's productivity.
"They should be able to do a lot more science instead of just maintenance of the station and personal things you have to do to live in space," Voss said. "So this is getting us back to where we were before and let us anticipate expanding the crew to even larger, to six or maybe even seven people in the future."
NASA hopes to do just that in 2009.