Discovery Shows Its Stuff

At about 600 feet below the space station, the Shuttle Discovery was set to be maneuvered into a back flip so crew members on the space station could take pictures of its belly for signs of damage.
The space shuttle Discovery did a back-flip before it arrived at the international space station.

But the acrobatic maneuver was not meant to show off. Instead, it let the crew of the space station take pictures of the shuttle's belly, to check for signs of damage Discovery might have suffered during liftoff. It was only the second time a space shuttle has performed the unusual maneuver before docking with the orbiting complex.

Commander Steve Lindsey steered the nose up and slowly flipped it over. Astronauts on the space station will send the digital pictures back to mission managers in Houston, who will pore over them.

The 360-feet-degree flip started about an hour before the shuttle was set to dock with the space station, traveling at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour, about 210 miles over Spain.

Space station crew members Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams planned to transmit the digital images back to Houston where mission managers and engineers would study them. An inspection Wednesday by Discovery's crew using cameras attached to a 50-foot boom revealed no major damage from the launch.

"Great to see you out the window," Williams radioed to Discovery after the shuttle fired maneuvering jets and made its final approach to the space station several miles away.

Lindsey responded: "Good to see you, Jeff. We're proceeding along normally. You guys look great."

Discovery then docked with the international space station, delivering its newest inhabitant — a German astronaut who will return the orbiting complex's crew to three people for the first time in three years.

The shuttle's jets cut off and space station latches automatically hooked onto the shuttle as they traveled at 17,500 mph.

Once the hatch was opened, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter planned to move his seat liner to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft attached to the space laboratory, marking his transfer to the space station's crew.

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The pitch maneuver was performed for the first time during Discovery's flight last year, the only other shuttle mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Columbia had been damaged by a chunk of hard insulating foam that fell from its external fuel tank during lift off. All seven astronauts died when fiery gases entered a breach in the wing during re-entry.

Flyaway foam remained a concern during Tuesday's Discovery launch. Photos showed two areas of small foam loss around the ice frost ramps on Discovery's external fuel tank, but NASA managers said the foam loss was too small and occurred too late in the launch to be a danger to the shuttle.

The Discovery crew awoke Thursday to a recording of Elton John's "Daniel," a choice of the wife and two sons of European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, who was set to become a member of the space station's crew after the shuttle docked.

Reiter, who has a son named Daniel, will spend six months living on the space station, bringing the size of the crew to three people for the first time in three years.

"You will be losing a crew member at the end of the day, but then again, you're gaining a station," flight controllers in Houston wrote Discovery's crew in their daily morning electronic message.

The crew size was reduced in the years after the Columbia accident when NASA's shuttle fleet was grounded. Russian vehicles weren't large enough to keep the space station supplied for more than two people.

Wednesday's inspection by the astronauts uncovered a thermal tile filler poking about a half-inch out of the belly of Discovery. Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said better data should be available Thursday but for now, engineers do not believe the dangling fabric will pose a danger for re-entry or require repairs. Last summer two similar strips had to be removed in orbit.

Last month, NASA's safety director and chief engineer recommended against launch until the area around those ramps was fixed. A repair plan is still being designed.

The mission for Discovery's crew is to test shuttle-inspection techniques and deliver supplies to the international space station. Astronauts Piers Sellers and Michael Fossum plan to carry out two spacewalks, and possibly a third, which would extend the 12-day mission by a day.