The space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of six arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) Wednesday to drop off some massive spare parts for the orbiting laboratory.
The two vehicles linked at 11:51 a.m. EST as the two spacecraft flew 220 miles above Earth. After sealing the link between them, astronauts opened the hatches at 1:29 p.m. EST.
"We're crashing the party," Atlantis commander Charlie Hobaugh radioed to the waiting station crew when the shuttle was about a mile away. "We're looking forward to seeing you guys," station astronaut Jeff Williams replied.
Atlantis launched Monday carrying more than 27,000 pounds of cargo for the space station, including a pair of massive carrier platforms laden with large spare parts for the orbiting laboratory. The spares, which include huge gyroscopes, pumps and other gear, will be installed at the station during three spacewalks planned for the 11-day space mission.
About an hour before docking, Hobaugh flew Atlantis through a back flip called the rendezvous pitch maneuver, which affords the station a detailed view of the shuttle's underbelly.
Inside the ISS, NASA astronauts Williams and Nicole Stott took several hundred photographs of the shuttle's heat shield to be beamed down to Mission Control so engineers can analyze them for any signs of damage the orbiter may have suffered during launch.
The move is standard practice after the space shuttle Columbia was damaged in 2003, when foam fell from the shuttle's external tank during launch and damaged the sensitive tiles on that orbiter's heat shield. The damage led to the devastating loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003 and its seven-astronaut crew.
So far NASA has found no major cause for concern from first readings of data taken during an exhaustive scan of the shuttle's heat shield Tuesday using a sensor-tipped pole. Engineers will continue to pore over that data and the new photos to be sure the shuttle is safe to ride back through Earth's atmosphere to the ground.
"Preliminarily, we don't have any significant issues," said LeRoy Cain, head of Atlantis' mission management team, late Tuesday.
After Atlantis' docked time at the station ends Stott will return back home with the STS-129 crew.
"I hear you have someone up there looking for a ride home," Hobaugh said as Atlantis approached the station. Williams joked that Stott hadn't yet decided whether to stay in space or return to Earth.
"Tell her we all bathed, we're okay," Hobaugh said.
Stott has been living aboard the station since late August as part of the outpost's six-person crew. She is currently the last astronaut planned to be rotated on and off the station using a NASA shuttle before the fleet is retired in the next year or so.
Stott and her crewmates have been tackling some glitches with the station's systems.
A 150-pound device used to distill astronaut urine into pure drinking water is broken and will have to be returned to Earth on Atlantis. The station's water processing assembly is also experiencing problems.
Neither glitch is expected to pose any concern to Atlantis' week-long stay at the space station, Cain said.
After reaching the station, the shuttle astronauts will begin preparing for their mission's first spacewalk, set to take place Thursday. Veteran spacewalker Mike Foreman and first-time flyer Bobby Satcher plan to install a spare antenna and complete other station maintenance tasks during the planned 6 1/2-hour activity.
This evening the two astronauts will sleep in the station's Quest airlock in a so-called "campout" to purge their bodies of nitrogen to avoid developing the bends while working in their spacesuits tomorrow.