HOUSTON – Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew delivered a sparkling new lab to the international space station on Saturday, smoothly docking after a two-day chase around the world.
The $2 billion European science lab, Columbus, will be unloaded and attached to the space station on Sunday.
The two spacecraft linked up as they passed more than 200 miles above Australia. Just over an hour later, the 10 space travelers — seven shuttle astronauts and three station residents — threw open the hatches, laughing and shouting.
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Just before docking, Atlantis did a 360-degree backflip so station commander Peggy Whitson and her crew could photograph the shuttle's thermal shielding. Nearly 300 photos were beamed back to Earth so engineers could look for any signs of launch damage.
Mission Control requested extra pictures of a torn thermal blanket on Atlantis' right orbital maneuvering system pod, back near the tail. The small tear was along a seam, and occurred during the launch, said flight director Mike Sarafin.
Engineers were analyzing the tear and whether it posed a hazard for re-entry at flight's end. The exact size of the peeled-up section was unknown, but it appeared to be smaller than one that required spacewalking repairs last June. Coincidentally, that tear was in a blanket on Atlantis' left orbital maneuvering system pod.
"It's probably not that big of an issue, but we're off looking at it," Sarafin told reporters.
The photos of the shuttle's thermal shielding tiles are standard procedure, ever since the destruction of Columbia in 2003. Columbia's wing was gashed at liftoff by a chunk of fuel-tank insulating foam. Only a small amount of foam is believed to have come off Atlantis' tank, and none of it appeared to seriously damage the shuttle.
Saturday was Whitson's 48th birthday, and the shuttle astronauts wished her all the best. She said Columbus' arrival was a great way to celebrate.
"We are looking forward to helping you over the next couple of days unpacking and enjoying your birthday present," the European Space Agency's Mission Control radioed from Germany.
Europeans have waited an agonizingly long time to see Columbus in orbit.
The original plan called for Columbus to be launched in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World. But years passed as NASA redesigned the space station. Then station construction ended up being stalled, and then the shuttle fleet was grounded for 2 1/2 years following the Columbia tragedy.
Atlantis will remain at the space station until next weekend. The shuttle astronauts will perform three spacewalks, beginning Sunday, to help install Columbus and complete other station chores.
Space station astronaut Daniel Tani was especially happy to see Atlantis and its French crewman, Leopold Eyharts, who will take his place aboard the orbiting outpost. Tani will return to Earth on the shuttle, ending a four-month mission.
Sarafin said the docking went well, despite the failure of one of Atlantis' three guidance and navigation computers early Saturday. Only two are needed for the job.