Shuttle Atlantis, space station link up
HOUSTON, Sep 11 (Reuters) Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station today 349 km above Earth, and prepared to hand over a 15,880-kg truss for attachment to the half-finished outpost.
With flight commander Brent Jett at the controls, Atlantis gently linked up to the station on a shuttle mission to restart space station assembly that was halted after the 2003 Columbia disaster.
The shuttle crew was to get down to business quickly by beginning delivery of the truss, which has two large solar energy panels to provide electricity to the station, shortly after arrival.
The 14-meter-long truss, part of the station's structural backbone, was to be plucked from the shuttle cargo bay with the shuttle robot arm and handed over to the station's robot arm.
It was to be latched tomorrow to the station, then shuttle crew members would perform the first of three planned spacewalks to complete installation in what NASA has said is one of its busiest, most complex shuttle missions.
The solar panels were to be unfolded later in Atlantis' planned weeklong stay in an array that will stretch 73 meters.
There is already one solar array on the station, but the new ones will double the amount of electricity for the expanding station.
NASA plans at least 14 more shuttle flights to complete the space outpost before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
Space station construction came to a halt after Columbia disintegrated while returning to Earth on February 1, 2003 and the seven astronauts on board were killed.
NASA put the shuttle program on hold and spent more than 1 billion dollars to fix safety problems, particularly the issue of launch debris that doomed Columbia by cracking the heat shield that protects it during the scorching re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.
NASA has flown two test flights since last summer, including one in July that gave it confidence it had made the shuttle safe enough to fly.
Atlantis astronauts spent yesterday scanning their spacecraft's heat shield with lasers and cameras looking for any damage that might have occurred during Saturday's launch from Florida.
NASA officials said a small spray of insulating foam and ice from the shuttle fuel tank glanced off the spacecraft during take-off, but preliminary observations found no harm to the heat shield.
NASA analysts will closely examine images and data to make sure Atlantis is in good shape, they said.
The experts also will look at photographs of the heat shield tiles on Atlantis' belly, snapped by space station crewmembers Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams when Jett maneuvered the shuttle through a slow blackflip just before docking.
The photo session, like the exhaustive scan on Sunday, is one of the safety measures devised by NASA after the Columbia accident.
REUTERS BDP KN1710