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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Shuttle docks with space station

Shuttle Endeavour and a crew of seven blasted off Tuesday on what was to be the longest space station mission ever, a 16-day voyage to build a gangly robot and add a new room that will serve as a closet for a future lab.

The seven crew members of the space shuttle Endeavour boarded the International Space Station on Thursday after docking high over Southeast Asia, NASA said.

The space rendez-vous took place 342 kilometers (212 miles) over Singapore at 0349 GMT, two days after Endeavour blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a NASA TV commentator said.

A bell rang on the ISS after docking was complete to welcome the shuttle on board, in a tradition borrowed from nautical practice.

Hatches between the shuttle and the space station were opened at 0528 GMT, and the three ISS residents and seven Endeavour crew members, including Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, greeted one another with hearty hugs.

About an hour before docking, shuttle commander Dominic Gorie guided the spacecraft through a back-flip maneuver while the ISS crew took some 300 digital pictures of the underbelly of the space shuttle.

The pictures were to be sent to Earth and analyzed for signs of potential damage to the shuttle's thermal tiles, a routine procedure since the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

Columbia disintegrated re-entering Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven on board, because its thermal shield had been damaged when it was struck by a piece of debris during launch.

Gorie then painstakingly guided the shuttle toward the ISS, carefully aligning the two spacecraft with respective masses of 120 and 320 tonnes, hurtling through space at 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) per hour.

The crews now begin 12 days of joint operations to include initial work installing a Japanese laboratory that is to become the largest and last research module of the International Space Station.


The shuttle Endeavour docked early Thursday at the International Space Station, completing another picture-perfect part of its mission after a flawless launch, US space officials said. After docking, the station's three-member resident crew and the seven-member Endeavour crew opened the hatches between the craft at 0528 GMT Thursday to begin 12 days of joint operations.

About an hour before docking, shuttle commander Dominic Gorie and pilot Gregory Johnson steered Endeavour through a now routine yet graceful back flip before the space station's cameras to line up the two craft.

The photos, along with those from a self-examination carried out by Endeavour on its way to the space station, are to be studied by ground control to make sure the shuttle's heat shield is still intact after the stresses of Tuesday's launch.

One of the first tasks of the mission is for US astronaut Garrett Reisman to move into the space station while French colleague Leopold Eyharts moves into the shuttle in preparation for his return to Earth after a lengthy stay in orbit.

The crews intend to conduct five spacewalks to install the first part of Japan's Kibo laboratory and the Canadian-built Dextre, a robotic device.

Japan's long-awaited Kibo laboratory - its arrival was delayed by the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster and the ensuing years of revamping the ageing spacecraft - is to perform about 100 experiments that could aid the development of medications and test new materials in weightlessness.

Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, part of the Endeavour crew, is to help install the Kibo lab.

Two other Japanese astronauts are to fly with missions in May and December to complete construction of the laboratory.

With the addition of Kibo, Japan's Space Station Integration and Promotion Centre north of Tokyo would join other control centres in the United States, Russia and Germany in monitoring components of the space station.

The US space agency, NASA, has an ambitious schedule this year as it hurries to finish construction work on the space station so it can retire the shuttles by 2010.

Russia's Soyuz craft can carry astronauts to the station but only limited amounts of construction material and laboratories because of their small size.

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