CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Atlantis' six astronauts delivered the first new addition to the international space station in more than 3 1/2 years as the space shuttle docked with the orbiting space lab Monday.
The 17 1/2-ton truss segment, containing two attached solar wings, will be the first new addition to the space station since December 2002 when space shuttle Endeavour delivered another truss segment. The Columbia disaster in 2003 halted all construction on the space lab.
"Atlantis is headed your way with a brand new piece of space station in its trunk," Mission Control radioed astronaut Jeff Williams at the space station 220 miles above Earth.
Williams radioed back, "We're ready to receive them, to bring them on board and to get to work."
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 end with Atlantis commander Brent Jett taking manual control of the spacecraft about 600 feet from the space station.
As Atlantis pulled within five miles of the station, Williams radioed the space shuttle, "We've got a good view of you. You're looking good. See you soon."
Jett planned to maneuver the spacecraft into a 360-degree pitch so that crew members on the space station can photograph the shuttle's belly. Those images will then be transmitted to NASA engineers and managers who will look for any damage to the shuttle's thermal skin from liftoff.
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.
After 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 miles per hour, 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 occurred too late into the ascent when the debris wasn't moving fast enough to do much damage.
After Monday's inspection, Jett was to inch Atlantis toward the space station's docking port where latches were to automatically fasten the two spacecraft together.
Following welcoming handshakes and hugs between the space shuttle and space station crews, astronauts planned to use the shuttle's robotic arm to remove the 17 1/2-ton addition from the shuttle's cargo bay and hand it over to the international space station's robotic arm.
When the shuttle arm hands the truss to the station arm -- both built by Canada -- it 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 pounds-per-square-inch. Before beginning 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," said flight director Paul Dye.