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Space-Station Crew Welcomes Discovery Astronauts

The crew aboard the international space station greeted Discovery's seven astronauts with hugs and handshakes on Thursday after the shuttle arrived at the orbiting outpost to begin an ambitious construction mission.

It was an extra special moment for Discovery commander Pamela Melroy and station commander Peggy Whitson, the first women to simultaneously manage two spacecraft in the 50-year history of spaceflight.

They warmly embraced one another when Melroy floated into the station.

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With Melroy at the helm, Discovery snuggled up to the space station and latched on after performing a giant somersault to give engineers a close look at the ship's belly and make sure it wasn't damaged during liftoff.

They will pay special attention to see whether a patch of ice that formed just before launch on the shuttle's fuel tank plumbing hurt the ship.

The ice apparently shook free and hit a hatch on the underside, but engineers were not sure if there was any damage.

NASA gave the go-ahead for launch, saying the ice was too small to pose a serious hazard. It appeared to be melting as the countdown entered its final minutes.

Flight director Rick LaBrode said engineers would be poring over the pictures taken Thursday but were not second guessing the decision to launch despite the ice patch.

"I think it did exactly what they anticipated it to do," he said.

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NASA engineers didn't spot anything significant in a preliminary look at images captured during Wednesday's meticulous examination of Discovery's nose and wings, said John Shannon, head of the mission management team.

But officials will need even more data and analyses before they can be sure the shuttle's thermal shielding made it through the launch damage-free.

Photos taken during Endeavour's pre-docking backflip in August allowed engineers to spot a worrisome gouge in that ship's belly.

The shuttle landed safely after several days of debate over whether in-flight repairs were needed.

Inspections like the one Wednesday became standard procedure after a piece of foam broke off Columbia's external fuel tank during liftoff and gashed a wing, allowing hot gases to penetrate the spacecraft during its return to Earth.

The shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

About six pieces of foam broke off Discovery's external fuel tank during launch and one or more may have hit the shuttle, but it happened late enough to be of little or no concern.

Shannon said nothing appeared to come off the tank's brackets, which were modified after Endeavour's landing.

Soon after the hatches opened, shuttle astronaut Daniel Tani became a full-fledged member of the space station.

He replaces Clayton Anderson, who has lived on the station since June and will return home with Discovery. Tani will remain on board until the next shuttle flight, slated for December.

"He's behind already one month in rent," Anderson joked.

The Discovery crew won't have much time to get comfortable with an action-packed schedule that calls for a record-tying five spacewalks.

The astronauts have to install Discovery's primary payload, a pressurized compartment that will be a docking port for European and Japanese laboratories being launched on the next three shuttle flights.

An Italian astronaut making his first spaceflight, Paolo Nespoli, is personally delivering the chamber, named Harmony by schoolchildren who took part in a national competition.

The astronauts also have to move a massive girder and set of solar wings on the station and pull out the solar wings and radiators.