Atlantis Docks With Space Station

Space Shuttle, 020409, GD REUTERS

The space shuttle Atlantis docked at the international space station Wednesday, its seven-member crew prepared to resume major construction on the U.S. side of the orbiting outpost for the first time in nearly a year.

For the three men already living on the station, these were their first visitors since an earlier shuttle crew left them behind in mid-December, 117 days ago.

The two spacecraft linked up as they sailed more than 240 miles above China. The space station astronauts rang their ship's bell as Atlantis docked, to mark the shuttle's arrival in the tradition of the high seas.

"You all do make a pretty sight there," space station resident Carl Walz radioed as the shuttle drew within 300 feet.

"It's good to see you guys," shuttle commander Michael Bloomfield replied as he steered his ship in.

The combined crew of 10 astronauts will spend a week together in joint operations, installing a new truss segment on the station, 44 feet of what eventually will become a 360-foot span holding an acre of solar panels to power future laboratories on the station.

On Thursday, astronaut Ellen Ochoa will use Atlantis' robot arm to place the aluminum girder that is full of plumbing and wiring onto the space station. Then two teams of spacewalkers will take turns over several days latching the truss segment - one of the space station's most complex pieces - and making power and data connections.

Astronaut Jerry Ross will be performing two of the four spacewalks needed to fully install the girder. He already holds the U.S. spacewalking record, with seven outings. With Monday's launch, he claimed another record: the first person to fly in space seven times.

Nine of the astronauts are American and one, station commander Yury Onufrienko, is Russian.

Ross was the first to report sighting the international station, the largest spacecraft ever to fly, from about 50 miles away.

"ISS is in view," said Ross, a spacewalker on the Atlantis crew who set a human spaceflight record Monday with his seventh launch into space.

From about 5 miles away, Bloomfield spoke to Onufrienko by short-wave radio.

"We can see the lights on in the window. We'll be there shortly," Bloomfield said.

It took nearly two days for Atlantis to catch up with the station after launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The intricate orbital rendezvous involves a number of rocket firings, first to put the shuttle into the same orbital plane as the station, then to slow its approach so that the two come together at a rate of just inches per minute as they fly in tandem at speeds of some 5 miles per second.

The station crew will not return to Earth until early June. For crew members Dan Bursch and Walz, that will mean a new American endurance record for time in space, breaking the 188-day mark set by Shannon Lucid when she lived aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1996.

Onufrienko will come nowhere near the Russian record, though, as tours of duty for Russians on Mir sometimes lasted more than a year.

On Monday, Atlantis astronauts are set to make the first of four spacewalks to install the $600 million truss segment.

It comes with a $190 million rail system so a small trolley can carry the station's large robotic arm from site to site as construction on the station continues. A handcar for astronauts will be added later.

This first segment of the rail, costing about $4.5 million per foot, easily could be the most expensive railroad ever built.
  • Lloyd Vries

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