Image: shuttle greeting
Astronauts on the International Space Station hug their visitors from the space shuttle Atlantis as they float through the station's hatch on Wednesday.
updated 11/20/2009 7:21:02 PM ET 2009-11-21T00:21:02

The space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of six arrived at the International Space Station Wednesday to drop off some massive spare parts for the orbiting laboratory.

The two vehicles linked up at 11:51 a.m. ET as the two spacecraft flew 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Earth. After sealing the link between them, astronauts opened the hatches at 1:29 p.m. ET.

"We're crashing the party," Atlantis commander Charlie Hobaugh radioed to the waiting station crew when the shuttle was about a mile away.

"We're looking forward to seeing you guys," station astronaut Jeff Williams replied.

Atlantis launched Monday carrying more than 27,000 pounds (12,246 kilograms) of cargo for the space station, including a pair of massive carrier platforms laden with large spare parts for the orbiting laboratory. The spares, which include huge gyroscopes, pumps and other gear, will be installed at the station during three spacewalks planned for the 11-day space mission.

Belly flop
About an hour before docking, Hobaugh flew Atlantis through a back flip called the rendezvous pitch maneuver, which affords the station a detailed view of the shuttle's underbelly.

Inside the station, NASA astronauts Williams and Nicole Stott took several hundred photographs of the shuttle's heat shield to be beamed down to Mission Control. Engineers will analyze the imagery for any signs of damage the orbiter may have suffered during launch.

The move is standard practice after the space shuttle Columbia was damaged in 2003, when foam fell from the shuttle's external tank during launch and hit the orbiter's sensitive heat shielding. The damage led to the devastating loss of Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew.

So far NASA has found no major cause for concern from first readings of data taken during an exhaustive scan of the shuttle's heat shield Tuesday. Engineers will continue to pore over that data and the new photos to be sure the shuttle is safe to ride back through Earth's atmosphere to the ground.

"Preliminarily, we don't have any significant issues," LeRoy Cain, head of Atlantis' mission management team, said late Tuesday.

Returning crewmember
After Atlantis' docked time at the station ends, Stott will return back home with the STS-129 crew.

"I hear you have someone up there looking for a ride home," Hobaugh said as Atlantis approached the station. Williams joked that Stott hadn't yet decided whether to stay in space or return to Earth.

Image: Atlantis docks with the space station on Wednesday
A camera mounted on the International Space Station's exterior shows the space shuttle Atlantis (with a wing visible at upper right) in its docked configuration Wednesday.
"Tell her we all bathed, we're OK," Hobaugh said.

Stott has been living aboard the station since late August as part of the outpost's six-person crew. She is the last astronaut scheduled to be rotated on and off the station using a NASA shuttle before the fleet is retired, in the next year or so.

Stott and her crewmates have been tackling some glitches with the station's systems.

A 150-pound (68-kilogram) device used to turn astronaut urine into pure drinking water is broken and will have to be returned to Earth on Atlantis. The station's water processing assembly is also experiencing problems.

Neither glitch is expected to pose any concern during Atlantis' weeklong stay at the space station, Cain said.

Just hours after Atlantis arrived, astronauts transferred one of the carrier platforms from the shuttle's payload bay to the station. Meanwhile, veteran spacewalker Mike Foreman and first-time spaceflier Bobby Satcher looked ahead to the mission's first spacewalk, scheduled for Thursday. Foreman and Satcher plan to install a spare antenna and complete other station maintenance tasks during six and a half hours of extravehicular activity.

On Wednesday evening, the two astronauts will sleep in the station's Quest airlock in a so-called "campout" to purge their bodies of nitrogen. The procedure will help the spacewalkers avoid developing the bends while working in their spacesuits.

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Video: Atlantis performs backflip

Photos: Month in Space: October 2009

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  1. Scribbles on Mars

    Mini-tornadoes known as dust devils have left behind dark, twisting tracks on Martian sand dunes in this image, captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in August and released on Oct. 14. Whirling winds create the patterns by stirring up darker material beneath the surface. (University of Arizona via NASA/JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Target: Moon

    Earth's moon, seen here in a photo taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft, was targeted by another probe in October. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, crashed into a polar crater on Oct. 9. Although the impact could not be seen from Earth, data collected by spacecraft with a better view of lunar surface should help scientists learn more about water ice trapped in the moon's soil. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Late, late lunar show

    Space enthusiasts watch coverage of the LCROSS lunar impact mission during an outdoor party at NASA's Ames Research Center in California on Oct. 9. Among the observers are, from left, Ames employee Carol Carroll, her son David and Lawrence Nguyen. (Peter DaSilva / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Warp speed

    The spiral galaxy NGC 4402 is being stripped of its gas content as it moves through the Virgo Cluster at a speed of millions of miles an hour. The pressures give it a warped or convex appearance. This picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 and was released on Sept. 30. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Xombie rises

    Masten Space System's XA-0.1B rocket, also known as Xombie, rises from its launch pad at California's Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 7. Xombie successfully completed a double-launch test flight, qualifying Masten's team for a $150,000 NASA-backed prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. (X Prize Foundation via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blobs in space

    This portrait of Barnard's Galaxy, made by the European Southern Observatory in Chile and released Oct. 14, shows curiously shaped star-forming nebulae in shades of red and purple. Also known as NGC 6822, this dwarf irregular galaxy is one of the Milky Way's galactic neighbors - situated a mere 1.6 million light-years away. (ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. New rocket readied

    NASA's new Ares 1-X test vehicle leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building early on Oct. 20, on its way to Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its maiden test launch. The Ares rocket is being developed to send astronauts into orbit after the space shuttle fleet's retirement. (Bruce Weaver / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dark dunes

    Martian winds have piled sand into strange-shaped dunes, as seen in a picture captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released on Oct. 7. The dunes are shown in shades of blue rather than red because the image has been color-coded to indicate subtle differences in surface composition. (University of Arizona via NASA/JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Blast from the sun

    A huge prominence erupts from the left side of the sun's disk in one of a series of images recorded in the ultraviolet spectrum over a 30-hour period by NASA's STEREO spacecraft. The Sept. 26-27 prominence, which was powered by the sun's magnetic field, was one of the first that was large enough for both of the STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Reflection Observatory) spacecraft to observe it over a period of hours. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. How icebergs are born

    Glaciers flow downhill from the southern Andes Mountains in Chile, releasing their ice into the Pacific Ocean via an intricate network of fjords. The ice breaks up into icebergs in a process known as calving. The process, shown in this picture released on Oct. 5, was observed from the International Space Station in orbit. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff from Spaceport America

    Lockheed Martin's prototype for an autonomous rocket plane roars up a launch rail at Spaceport America in New Mexico in August 2008. Lockheed has said little about the development effort, due to proprietary concerns, but the company reported that an Oct. 10 launch was successful. (Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Lava on Mars

    Over the course of Martian geological history, volcanic lava has flowed repeatedly over a region known as Daedalia Planum, southeast of a large volcano called Arsia Mons. This picture from the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, released Oct. 9, shows the tracks left behind by those flows. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Dusty touchdown

    A Russian Soyuz spacecraft kicks up dust as it lands in the steppes of Kazakhstan on Oct. 11. The capsule brought Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, NASA astronaut Michael Barratt and Canadian millionaire Guy Laliberte back to Earth from the International Space Station. (Yuri Kochetkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Clowning around

    Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte wears his trademark clown nose as he is carried away from a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on Oct. 11. The Soyuz landing marked the end of a 12-day trip to the International Space Station that reportedly cost the Canadian billionaire $35 million. (Yuri Kochetkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Satellite check

    A technician checks Eutelsat's W7 communications satellite at Thales Alenia Space in Cannes, France, on Oct. 7. The W7 satellite is scheduled to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November. (Eric Gaillard / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Where stars are born

    An infrared image from the European Space Agency's Herschel probe, released Oct. 2, shows clouds of dust and gas in our own Milky Way galaxy. Scientists say the clouds shroud hordes of newborn stars. The image is a composite of light captured simultaneously by two of Herschel's three instruments -- its photodetector array camera and spectrometer, and its spectral and photometric imaging receiver. (ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Two-tone moon

    Dark dust coats half of a Saturnian moon named Iapetus, as seen in this photo captured by the Cassini orbiter in September 2007. In the Oct. 8 issue of Nature, researchers suggested that the source of the dust was a nearly invisible ring of debris kicked off from another moon, Phoebe. The ring starts about 3.7 million miles away from Saturn and extends outward another 7.4 million miles. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Reaching out ... on Mars

    NASA's Spirit rover stretches out its robotic arm over Martian terrain in a photo taken on Oct. 11. The bright soil in the left half of the image is the loose, fluffy material in which the rover has been mired for the past six months. (Caltech / NASA via JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Clash of galaxies

    An image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows two galaxies merging into one beautiful mess known as NGC 2623. The picture, based on data acquired in 2007, was released on Oct. 13. (A. Evans / Stony Brook University / NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Layers upon layers

    Deposits of light-colored material lie atop sand dunes in the Noctis Labyrinthus formation on Mars, as shown in this picture from the high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Readings from another instrument, known as CRISM, suggest that the material contains iron-bearing sulfates and clay minerals. The photo was released on Oct. 7. (University of Arizona via NASA/JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
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