Atlantis Races Toward Space Station

The six crew members aboard space shuttle Atlantis began the second day of their mission Tuesday, with a musical wake-up call at 4:28 a.m. EST.

Serenading the astronauts as they circled high above the Earth was the band Mercy Me with their song, "I Can Only Imagine."

The six-member STS-129 crew will dock with the International Space Station on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the astronauts will pull out an inspection boom Tuesday and check their ship's thermal shielding. They will be on the lookout for any damage that might have occurred during liftoff the previous day.

The crew will also install a camera inside the Orbiter Docking System and check out tools in preparation for Wednesday's rendezvous.

NASA officials say a quick look at the launch images shows nothing to be worried about. Tuesday's survey will provide additional data. The space agency has been extra cautious ever since the Columbia disaster six years ago.

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Atlantis is delivering big spare parts to the space station, and will be giving a ride back home to Flight Engineer Nicole Stott, who has been working at the space station for nearly three months.

It's an 11-day flight, which will keep the crew in orbit through Thanksgiving.

Keep On Truckin'

Awaiting 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, the agency is pressing ahead with the Bush administration's directive to complete the space station and end shuttle flights by the end of 2010, notes CBS News space analyst Bill 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 STS-129 commander Charles 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.

On Nov. 12, a new Russian docking module called Poisk automatically locked itself to an upward-facing port on the Zvezda command module (left), providing a fourth docking port for the Russian segment of the station - a necessity for long-term support of up to six full-time crew members.

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."

For more info:
CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood's "Space Place" updates
Space Shuttle Main Page (NASA)
International Space Station Main Page (NASA)

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