Discovery Docks With Space Station - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

7/6/06-Cape Canaveral, FL

Discovery Docks With Space Station

Space shuttle Discovery docked with the international space station on Thursday, delivering its newest inhabitant -- a German astronaut who will return the orbiting complex's crew to three for the first time in three years.

The shuttle's jets cut off and space station latches automatically hooked onto the shuttle as the two traveled 17,500 miles per hour, about 220 miles above Earth.

Later Thursday morning the hatch was opened and the two crews greeted each other with smiles and handshakes.

Soon European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter will move his seat liner to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft attached to the space laboratory, marking his official transfer to the space station's crew.

Shuttle acrobatics

An hour before the docking, Discovery commander Steve Lindsey manually steered the shuttle's nose up and slowly flipped the spacecraft over so the space station's crew could photograph its belly for any signs of damage. It was only the second time a space shuttle has performed the unusual maneuver before docking with the station.

The space station's two residents, Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams, planned to transmit the digital images back to Houston, where mission managers and engineers would study them. An inspection Wednesday by Discovery's crew using cameras attached to a 50-foot boom revealed no major damage from the launch.

"Great to see you out the window," Williams radioed to Discovery after the shuttle fired maneuvering jets and made its final approach to the space station several miles away.

Lindsey responded: "Good to see you, Jeff. We're proceeding along normally. You guys look great."

The pitch maneuver was performed for the first time during Discovery's flight last year, the only other shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Columbia had been damaged by a chunk of hard insulating foam that fell from its external fuel tank during lift off. All seven astronauts died when fiery gases entered a breach in the wing during re-entry.

Flyaway foam remained a concern during Tuesday's Discovery launch. Photos showed two areas of small foam loss around the ice frost ramps on Discovery's external fuel tank, but NASA managers said the foam loss was too small and occurred too late in the launch to be a danger to the shuttle.

Wednesday's inspection by the astronauts uncovered a thermal tile filler poking about a half-inch out of the belly of Discovery. Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said better data should be available later Thursday but for now, engineers do not believe the dangling fabric will pose a danger for re-entry or require repairs. Last summer two similar strips had to be removed in orbit.

The Discovery crew awoke Thursday to a recording of Elton John's "Daniel," a choice of Reiter's wife and two sons.

Reiter, who has a son named Daniel, will spend six months living on the space station. The crew's size had been reduced to two in the years after the Columbia accident when NASA's shuttle fleet was grounded; Russian vehicles weren't large enough to keep the space station supplied for more than two people.

The mission for Discovery's crew is to test shuttle-inspection techniques and deliver supplies to the international space station. Astronauts Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum plan to carry out two spacewalks, and possibly a third, which would extend the 12-day mission by a day.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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