Shuttle brings Columbus to the space station
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 9, 2008
Wrapping up a textbook rendezvous, commander Steve Frick guided the shuttle Atlantis to a smooth docking with the international space station today after a spectacular slow-motion back flip directly below the outpost to let the lab crew photograph the ship's heat shield tiles. The linkup occurred at 12:17 p.m. as the two spacecraft sailed 209 miles above southern Australia at 5 miles per second. The station crew promptly rang the ship's bell, announcing the shuttle's arrival in accordance with naval tradition.
"Houston, Alpha/Atlantis. We have capture confirmed," station flight engineer Dan Tani radioed.
"Great indicator," commander Peggy Whitson agreed.
Today's docking was the first since the new Harmony connecting module was attached to the forward end of the U.S. Destiny laboratory late last year. The shuttle's docking port, pressurized mating adapter No. 2, was removed from Destiny and attached to the front end of Harmony in November to complete a major reconfiguration of the station's front end.
Atlantis' arrival, bringing the European Space Agency's Columbus research module and a new station crew member - French astronaut Leopold Eyharts - was a welcome birthday present for Whitson, who turned 48 today. A large "Happy Birthday" sign was stretched across the interior of the Destiny module to mark the occasion.
Atlantis also was a welcome sight for Tani, who was launched to the station last October and who's stay aloft was extended two months because of problems getting the shuttle off the ground in December.
Eyharts will officially replace Tani early Sunday, after his Soyuz seat liner and pressure suit are transferred to the station and it's Russian descent vehicle. Eyharts will remain aboard the station until tthe shuttle Endeavour arrives in mid March carrying the first of two Japanese modules.
Whitson, Tani and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko planned to welcome their shuttle colleagues aboard with a brief ceremony in the Harmony module. After a safety briefing, the astronauts will get back to work, using the station's robot arm to pull the shuttle's heat shield inspection boom from its stowage location along the right side of the cargo bay.
The boom must be removed to clear the way for the unberthing of the Columbus module Sunday. The shuttle's robot arm can't reach it when the ship is docked to the station and once it's clear of the cargo bay, the station arm will hand the boom off to the shuttle's arm.
During the shuttle's approach to the station today, Whitson and Malenchenko photographed the belly of the orbiter as Frick guided the spaceplane through a dramatic end-over-end back flip as the two spacecraft passed high above the Atlantic Ocean. The station astronauts also photographed the shuttle's upper surfaces, paying special attention to Atlantis' right aft orbital maneuvering system rocket pod.
Engineers suspect one of the insulation blankets on the pod might have pulled up a bit during launch, but nothing obvious could be seen in close-up television views from the station. The higher-resolution digital still images should give engineers the views they need to assess the condition of the pad blankets as well as the critical heat shield tiles on the ship's belly.
Earlier today, the shuttle crew requested a private medical conference, or PMC, a somewhat unusual request in the midst of a rendezvous. A followup PMC was asked for shortly after docking but NASA does not discuss medical issues because of privacy concerns and it was not known what might have prompted the brief conferences.