The space shuttle Discovery performed a slow backflip and then docked at the international space station on Monday, delivering a mammoth lab and two new occupants: a NASA astronaut and Buzz Lightyear.
Back at the launch site, meanwhile, NASA hurriedly set up an investigation to figure out why the launch pad suffered its worst damage in 27 years of space shuttle flight. Bricks and mortar flew off the pad during Discovery’s liftoff Saturday.
Discovery was not struck by any of the debris — engineers pored over the launch pictures to be sure of that, said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team. When asked by a reporter if NASA got lucky in that regard, he said: “I don’t like to think in terms of luck.”
Commander Mark Kelly pulled up to the space station and parked as the two spacecraft soared 210 miles (335 kilometers) above the South Pacific.
Discovery carried Japan’s prized Kibo lab, a 37-foot-long (11-meter-long), 16-ton scientific workshop. The seven shuttle astronauts and three station residents will combine forces to install the bus-size lab on Tuesday.
The shuttle crew also brought a spare toilet pump for the orbiting outpost. The space station’s Russian-built toilet broke nearly two weeks ago — forcing the crew to perform manual flushes with extra water several times a day — and engineers hope the new pump will take care of the problem.
Astronaut Gregory Chamitoff got his first look at what will be his home for the next six months. He is replacing Garrett Reisman, who has been living at the station since March.
“Garrett, you have a beautiful house,” Chamitoff said. “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful.”
The two men hugged once the hatches between them swung open. It was a group embrace, actually, with the space station’s two Russian residents joining in as well.
Also moving in for a half-year is a 12-inch (30-centimeter) action figure familiar to children almost everywhere: Buzz Lightyear, the character from the 1995 film “Toy Story” that’s always yearning to blast off “to infinity and beyond.” Disney sent up the toy as part of NASA’s toys-in-space educational program.
Right before linking up with the space station, Kelly guided Discovery through a 360-degree somersault from 600 feet (180 meters) out, allowing Reisman and one of the space station’s Russian residents to take zoom-in photos of the shuttle’s belly. The back flip became standard procedure for shuttle flights following the 2003 Columbia tragedy; Columbia was brought down by a hole in the wing, left there by flyaway fuel-tank foam.
Imagery experts will pore over these 302 digital pictures — as well as the multitude of launch images — to see whether Discovery is in good enough shape to re-enter safely on June 14. About five pieces of foam insulation broke off the external fuel tank during liftoff, and one or two of them may have hit the shuttle. But the pieces, it’s believed, came off too late in the launch to do any damage.
As for the launch pad damage, the worst of it, by far, was in the brick-lined trench that is designed to deflect the flames at booster rocket ignition.
A large section of the flame trench — 20 feet by 75 feet (6 by 23 meters) — broke apart, and chunks of the large heat-resistant fire bricks and concrete mortar were scattered all the way past the chain-link fence 1,800 feet (550 meters) away. The fence was damaged in places.
The pieces of debris ranged in size from a pebble to entire bricks.
The flame trench — dating back to the 1960s Apollo era — is inspected regularly and undergoes periodic repair, Cain said. “Something happened specific to this mission,” he said at a news conference.
NASA does not need to use the pad again until the next shuttle launch in October. Cain said the space agency will need to understand what happened — and prevent it from happening again — before another shuttle can take off from that pad.
He said it was unlikely that the October mission — astronauts’ final trip to the Hubble Space Telescope — would be delayed as a result of the launch pad damage.