The space shuttle Discovery docked with the International Space Station early on Monday evening on a mission to ferry a new crew member and add a two-tonne module to the orbiting lab.
U.S. astronaut Sunita (Suni) Williams got her first look at her home for the next six months after Discovery docked with the space station at 5:12 p.m.ETover southeast Asia.She will replace German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency.
The shuttle's arrivalsets the stage for further construction work on the stationand a week of joint operations. Thecrew will conduct three spacewalks to install the new moduleand to reconfigure and redistribute power generated by the station. The first spacewalk is scheduled for 3:42 p.m. Tuesday.
"I think we're off to a really good start," Discovery commander Mark Polansky told Mission Control Sunday night as his crew wrapped up a meticulous inspection of the shuttle, looking for possible damage from liftoff. "Really looking forward to some real exciting days ahead."
Discovery was to be inspected about an hour before docking, when Polansky was to manually steer the shuttle's nose up and slowly flip the spacecraft over so the space station's crew could photograph its belly for damage. The safety procedure was implemented after the Columbia accident in 2003.
The space shuttle's heat shield appeared to be in good health, NASA managers said Sunday night, though it will be at least two days before engineers can rule out possible damage from the program's first night launch in four years.
'Nothing of concern': Shannon
As expected, small pieces of foam debris and ice fell off Discovery's external fuel tank during Saturday night's launch, but they didn't appear to strike the shuttle — or if they did, it was too late in ascent to cause serious damage, said deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.
"The team sees nothing of concern at this time," Shannon said.
NASA engineers were studying four low-momentum readings from sensors on the leading edge of the shuttle's wing about two minutes after liftoff.
"I don't know if they're strikes. In the past, there's a lot of folks who think it's just a shock wave passing over â¦ or there's some settling," Shannon said. "We've seen exactly the same thing on the last couple of flights. We don't know exactly what's happening."
Engineers were alsoworking on problems with a system that cools the shuttle's radiators, a predicament that surfaced during Discovery's last flight in July. They also focused on a latching mechanism on the shuttle's robotic arm that would not operate automatically. Neither was expected to affect the flight.
The space shuttle will deliver an $11 million US addition, which will be installed during the first spacewalk on Tuesday, and six other astronauts who, unlike Williams, will stay only seven days at the space station. Two other spacewalks are scheduled to rewire the space lab's electrical grid from a temporary to a permanent power system.
The docking will occur with both spacecraft travelling about 27,000kilometres an hour, about 355 kilometres above Earth.
"We may make it look easy, but in fact it's very difficult," Shannon said. "Everything in space flight is tough, but we try to make it look easy."