Washington (AFP) March 13, 2008
The seven crew members of the space shuttle Endeavour boarded the International Space Station on Thursday after docking high over Southeast Asia, NASA said.
The space rendez-vous took place 342 kilometers (212 miles) over Singapore at 0349 GMT, two days after Endeavour blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a NASA TV commentator said.
A bell rang on the ISS after docking was complete to welcome the shuttle on board, in a tradition borrowed from nautical practice.
Hatches between the shuttle and the space station were opened at 0528 GMT, and the three ISS residents and seven Endeavour crew members, including Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, greeted one another with hearty hugs.
"Today was a textbook rendez-vous and docking. I couldn't have asked for anything better. Picture perfect," flight director Mike Moses told reporters at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
About an hour before docking, shuttle commander Dominic Gorie guided the spacecraft through a back-flip maneuver while the ISS crew took some 300 digital pictures of the underbelly of the space shuttle.
The pictures were to be sent to Earth and analyzed for signs of potential damage to the shuttle's thermal tiles, a routine procedure since the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
Columbia disintegrated re-entering Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven on board, because its thermal shield had been damaged when it was struck by a piece of debris during launch.
Gorie then painstakingly guided the shuttle toward the ISS, carefully aligning the two spacecraft with respective masses of 120 and 320 tonnes, hurtling through space at 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) per hour.
The crews now begin 12 days of joint operations to include initial work installing a Japanese laboratory that is to become the largest and last research module of the International Space Station.
With its installation Japan gains a foothold on the ISS alongside the United States, Russia and Europe, whose laboratory Columbus was delivered to the station in February.
Kibo, which means "hope" in Japanese, is a micro-gravity research facility which aims to open a vital new stage in deeper space exploration.
"We are now taking this first step down the path that will lead to the establishment of 'a Japanese home in space,'" Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said after the Endeavour crew boarded the ISS, borrowing a comment that Doi made before launch.
Endeavour will also deliver a piece of hardware from Canada -- a component for the robotic arm named Dextre, which is used for delicate tasks normally reserved for an astronaut on a space walk.
The 16-day Endeavour mission is the longest at the ISS and will see the crew venture out on five space walks, totaling about 30 hours of work.
Kibo will be the largest by far of the four research modules on board the station and represents Japan's most important offering to the project, to which the island nation has contributed a total of 10 billion dollars.
Several of Kibo's experiments, focusing in part on medicine, biology, biotechnology and communications, are seen as crucial steps in preparing further missions to the Moon and even human missions to Mars.
The first stage being delivered is ELM-PS, a 4.2-ton logistics module measuring 3.9 meters (12.8 feet) long and 4.4 meters (14.4 feet) in diameter.
Its key component, the Pressurized Module with a remote-control robotic arm, is expected to be transported to the ISS on space shuttle Discovery due to launch May 25.
The module is a massive 11.2-meter-long (36.7 feet) cylinder weighing 15.9 tons.
The final Kibo installment, an inter-orbit communications system unit called the Exposed Facility, is due for delivery in March 2009.
Gorie, 50, leads a team comprising co-pilot Gregory Johnson, 45, mission specialists Rick Linnehan, 50, Robert Behnken, 37, Mike Foreman, 50, Garret Reisman, 40, and Doi, 53, from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Four of the astronauts are making their maiden voyages into space.
Aboard the ISS are commander Peggy Whitson, Frenchman LeopoldEyharts,amedical researcher and engineer from France's National Centerof Space Studies, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.
Eyharts will be returning to Earth aboard Endeavour, with Reisman taking his place abord the ISS.
earlier related report
The US space shuttle Endeavour, with a crew of seven on board including Japan's Takao Doi, docked on the International Space Station at 0349 GMT in the first step to building the Japanese laboratory.
"We are now taking this first step down the path that will lead to the establishment of 'a Japanese home in space,'" Fukuda said, borrowing a comment that Doi made before the launch.
"My heartfelt prayers go out to Mr Doi for the success of his activities," Fukuda wrote in a weekly e-mail newsletter.
The laboratory -- called "Kibo," or "Hope" in Japanese -- is to be delivered in three space shipments through next year.
It will stage zero-gravity experiments that could help develop new products, including pharmaceuticals and parts related to semiconductors.
Japan's laboratory will be the first to have a section completely open to space and attached by a robotic arm.
Japan joined the project to build the International Space Station, which was championed by then US president Ronald Reagan, in 1985.
But the space station was delayed due to space shuttle accidents and budget problems of the participants, which now include Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Japan is expected to spend more than one trillion yen (10 billion dollars) on Kibo. The world's second largest economy has been stepping up space research and aims to send an astronaut to the moon by 2020.
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NASA puzzles over mysterious 10-second debris
Washington (AFP) March 12, 2008
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