CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The space shuttle and space station hooked up Friday after a round-the-world chase, making for the biggest crowd ever gathered together in orbit — 13 Earthlings.
Endeavour docked at the international space station as the two craft soared 220 miles above the Australian coast.
Once the hatches popped open, the seven shuttle astronauts floated into the space station, one by one, and embraced their six station colleagues. It was a bit of a mob scene, a floating jumble of dark shirts, beige pants and shorts, and white socks.
"Welcome," said the station's skipper, Russian Gennady Padalka, positioned at the entrance.
"Thirteen is a pretty big number, but it's going to be an outstanding visit for us," said shuttle commander Mark Polansky. "We are just thrilled to be here."
The station doubled in size, people-wise, at the end of May, and this was the first shuttle visit since then. Although 13 people have been in orbit before, they were scattered in separate spacecraft. The old under-the-same-roof crowd record was 10.
Their first team effort comes Saturday, when two of the shuttle astronauts venture out on the first of five planned spacewalks to help hook up a porch for Japan's space station lab. The porch will be used to hold outdoor experiments.
Endeavour's astronauts had barely settled in when Mission Control informed them that a piece of space junk was threatening to come too close and that the shuttle-station complex would have to move into a slightly higher orbit later in the evening.
Space station residents snapped and beamed down a few hundred digital pictures of Endeavour, a routine procedure put in place after the 2003 Columbia accident. Shuttle program manager John Shannon later said no significant damage had been found spotted, although the analysis was continuing. An inspection by the shuttle crew Thursday found the wings and nose — the most vulnerable spots — to be intact.
The bulk of the lost foam peeled away from the central area of Endeavour's fuel tank in 6-inch strips, six minutes after liftoff when it's too late to pose any threat. That part of the tank normally does not shed like that, and NASA has assembled a team to figure out what happened. Another engineering team is organizing tests for the tank that will be used on the next shuttle flight, now delayed.
Discovery had been scheduled to blast off Aug. 18. Shannon said the launch will occur no earlier than Aug. 21 or 22 because of the extra tank checks and other factors. As long as the foam is attached properly in the problem area, he said, NASA will proceed with the flight even if it does not know what caused Wednesday's excessive foam loss.
Endeavour will remain at the space station until July 28. Japan's Koichi Wakata, in orbit since March, will be aboard the shuttle when it leaves. American Timothy Kopra, who took his place, was more than a month late because of launch delays.
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