CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The crew of the international space station welcomed Atlantis' six astronauts on board Monday after the space shuttle arrived carrying the first new addition for the orbiting laboratory in more than 3½ years.
The hatch between two orbiting spacecraft was opened more than 1½ hours after Atlantis commander Brent Jett eased the space shuttle into the station's docking port at 6:48 a.m. EDT.
The shuttle's nearly two-day trip from Earth ended as the two vehicles were passing about 220 miles above the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean.
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Atlantis pilot Chris Ferguson, on his first trip to space, had a wide grin as he was given a tour of the space station by its crew.
A short time later, the space shuttle's robotic arm was used to grasp the 17½-ton addition in Atlantis' cargo bay, preparing to hand it off to the space station's robotic arm. The addition is a 45-foot-long structure with folded solar wings inside.
The crew was on schedule with all the tasks on their to-do list and were not experiencing any problems, said lead flight director Paul Dye.
After watching for several years as flight control teams practiced the delicate transfer of the new addition, in which the lengthy structure would come within a couple inches of bumping the side of the shuttle, Dye marveled at Monday's performance.
"Isn't that beautiful," Dye said after a news briefing Monday morning. "It's wonderful to see it happening for real."
With both vehicles moving at 17,500 miles per hour, the tag-up with the space station required Atlantis to make a series of jet firings that ended with Jett taking manual control of the spacecraft about 1,000 feet from the space station.
At about 600 feet from the station, Jett maneuvered the spacecraft so the space station's three-man crew could photograph the shuttle's belly for NASA engineers, who will look for any damage from liftoff to the spacecraft's thermal skin.
That inspection technique, along with another performed Sunday using a 50-foot boom with sensors at the end, were implemented following the Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts in 2003.
Foam debris from Columbia's external fuel tank struck a wing, allowing fiery gases to penetrate when the shuttle returned to Earth.
While reviewing photos from Atlantis' launch on Saturday, NASA managers saw only a single piece of debris that fell during a part of the liftoff when a debris strike can endanger the shuttle. A thruster cover fell 16 seconds into the ascent at a speed of 230 mph, but it didn't hit the shuttle.
Seven other pieces of foam and ice debris appeared to fall off, including four that seemed to hit the shuttle, but they all occurred too late into the ascent when the debris wasn't moving fast enough to do much damage.
The Columbia disaster in 2003 halted all construction on the space lab. NASA and its international partners hope to finish building the space station on 14 additional missions by 2010 when the space shuttle fleet is scheduled to be grounded.
"Atlantis is headed your way with a brand new piece of space station in its trunk," Mission Control radioed astronaut Jeff Williams with the space shuttle still several miles away.
The handoff of the $372 million addition from the shuttle's robotic arm to the station's similar limb — both built by Canada — could be considered "the great Canadian handshake," Atlantis astronaut Steve MacLean said before the mission.
MacLean will become the first Canadian to operate his home country's robotic arm.
Astronauts Joe Tanner and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper planned to end the day by "camping out" overnight in the space station's airlock in preparation for the first of three spacewalks the next day.
The air pressure in the airlock will be reduced from 14.7 pounds per square inch to 10.2 psi. Before spacewalks, crew members usually have to breathe pure oxygen for several hours to purge their bodies of nitrogen and prevent a condition known as the bends. The new method reduces that preparation time.
"It is a very, very busy day with virtually no time for breaks," Dye had said earlier.
During Tuesday's spacewalk, the astronauts will connect wiring from the new solar addition to the space station. The task must be performed fairly quickly so the electronic components don't get cold, Dye said.