Space shuttle Atlantis arrived at the International Space Station on Wednesday for a weeklong stay, delivering a load of spare parts needed to keep the outpost running for another decade.
Commander Charles "Scorch" Hobaugh piloted the shuttle to a gentle docking with the space station after a spectacular back-flip maneuver 220 miles above the Atlantic Ocean that allowed the lab crew to photograph the ship's heat shield in a now-routine inspection, reports CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood.
"Station, Houston, Atlantis, capture confirmed," a shuttle astronaut radioed.
Astronaut Nicole Stott, a space station resident for the past 2½ months, was thrilled to see her ride home. She spotted Atlantis from three miles out.
"I have my ticket all ready and stamped, waiting for you guys when you get here," Stott radioed to shuttle commander Charles Hobaugh.
"Who is this?" Hobaugh teased.
"It's your favorite passenger," she replied. "You look beautiful out there."
So far, all indications are the shuttle made it through Monday's liftoff just fine, NASA officials said. The astronauts surveyed their ship Tuesday for any signs of launch damage, and a quick look at the laser images shows everything in good shape. Experts will continue to analyze the data, as well as the couple hundred digital photos that were taken Wednesday.
Atlantis will remain at the orbiting outpost until the day before Thanksgiving, enough time for the two crews to unload nearly 15 tons of spare parts.
The six astronauts on the shuttle and six on the station will make for one big crowd.
"We're crashing the party," Hobaugh said as the shuttle drew to within a mile.
Atlantis is loaded with pumps, tanks, gyroscopes and other huge spare parts for the orbiting outpost, as well as some small, fragile science experiments. Perhaps the most delicate are four butterfly larvae, a student experiment. The plan is for the larvae to develop into Painted Lady butterflies over the next week or two and return on the next shuttle flight in February.
The first of three spacewalks will take place Thursday.
Meanwhile, NASA is pressing ahead with the Bush administration's directive to complete the space station and end shuttle flights by the end of 2010 as it awaits a decision by the Obama administration on what sort of spacecraft will replace the shuttle and whether the moon or some other target will be NASA's next objective, notes Harwood.
The International Space Station currently is only funded through 2015, but there appears to be widespread political support to extend operations through 2020. That would mean operating the lab complex for 10 years without the shuttle and its cavernous cargo bay to deliver large spares and other components.
With just six missions left on NASA's shuttle manifest between now and the end of fiscal 2010, Atlantis' mission is one of two devoted primarily to delivering critical spare parts and equipment - orbital replacement units, or ORUs - that are too large to be delivered by European, Russian or Japanese cargo ships.
"We're looking for the long-term outfitting of station," said Hobaugh. "Our flight is one of the first flights that externally will provide a lot of those spare parts and long-lead type replacement items that are required to keep it healthy and running for quite some time."
After the shuttle is retired, supplies and equipment will be delivered to the International Space Station by unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft, the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle (or ATV), Japan's new HTV cargo carrier, and commercial providers now in the process of designing future vehicles.
But none of the unmanned cargo ships is capable of delivering the very large components routinely carried by the space shuttle that are too big to pass through the station's hatches, says Harwood. Most of the spares being launched aboard Atlantis have no other way of getting to the station.
The shuttle also provides a way to bring failed components back to Earth for repairs or refurbishment. Atlantis, for example, will bring down components in the space station's urine recycling system that have encountered problems in recent weeks.
The station crew has enough fresh water and stowage to get along with no major problems until refurbished hardware can be launched on an upcoming shuttle flight. But the issue illustrates the sort of capability that will be lost when the shuttle is retired.
"This is why these (spare components) need to fly now on the shuttle," said station Flight Director Brian Smith. "There's no other way to get these ORUs ... to the ISS. And these are all critical spares. You can tell by what their function is we have to have these pre-positioned because they all serve vital roles on the space station."