Astronauts from space shuttle Endeavour and the international space station greeted one another with hugs and smiles on Thursday to begin a joint 12-day mission to install a Japanese laboratory and Canadian robotic system.
Endeavour docked with the space outpost late on Wednesday as they flew 200 miles above Singapore, two days after the shuttle launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A little later, the hatches were opened and the 10 astronauts from the two ships floated into their happy meeting, then went straight to work.Before the late-night linkup, Endeavour’s commander, Dominic Gorie, guided the shuttle through a 360-degree backflip to allow for full photographic surveillance. It’s one of the many safety-related procedures put in place following the Columbia tragedy in 2003.
The space station crew used cameras with high-powered zoom lenses to photograph Endeavour from nose to tail, especially all the thermal tiles on its belly. The pictures — as many as 300 — will be scrutinized by engineers on the ground to see whether the shuttle suffered any damage during Tuesday’s launch.
Something, maybe a bird, may have struck Endeavour’s nose nine or 10 seconds after liftoff. The launch images are inconclusive so far. NASA expects that images collected during the astronauts’ laser inspection of the nose and wings will reveal any damage, if it’s there.
LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team, said the launch video suggests to some that Endeavour’s nose took a hit. Still photos, on the other hand, show no impact.
“It’s too early to speculate,” Cain said late Wednesday afternoon. “The team has got a lot of work to do on that as well as other debris items.”
Also, right at liftoff, something appeared to fall off the tail end of the shuttle, possibly part of a thermal tile. Later, at the 83-second mark, a piece of debris, possibly fuel-tank foam insulation, appeared to miss the shuttle’s right wing.
“There’s nothing that stands out in terms of things that we’re worried about,” Cain said.
The photographs preceding the docking will add to NASA’s arsenal of data for determining whether Endeavour will be able to re-enter safely at the end of its 16-day flight, the longest space station mission ever by a shuttle. The analysis will take several days.
Bell chimes heralded Endeavour’s arrival just before midnight. “Endeavour arriving,” space station commander Peggy Whitson called out as she rang the vessel’s bell.
“Peggy, that’s the sweetest bell I’ve ever heard. Thank you very much,” Gorie replied.
Mission Control praised Gorie for his expert flying.
Besides seven astronauts, one of them Japanese, Endeavour holds the first piece of Japan’s new space station lab, Kibo, which is Japanese for “hope.” The storage compartment will be attached to the orbiting complex on Friday; it’s a temporary location until the lab arrives in May.
In addition to Kibo, Endeavour is delivering a two-armed Canadian robot, named Dextre, that will be assembled during the first three spacewalks of the mission. The shuttle is also bringing a a new space station resident, Garrett Reisman, who will replace French astronaut Leopold Eyharts.
In all, five spacewalks are planned during Endeavour's visit.