Shuttle Atlantis docks with space station
The space shuttle Atlantis has successfully docked with the International Space Station to deliver supplies and experiments.
The shuttle and the orbiting station joined together late Wednesday morning, at 11:51 ET. The station's crew welcomed the six shuttle astronauts when the hatches between the two spacecraft opened just before 1:30 p.m.
Astronaut Nicole Stott especially has been looking forward to the arrival of Atlantis. Stott has lived on the space station for 2½ months, and Atlantis is her ride home.
"I have my ticket all ready and stamped, waiting for you guys when you get here," Stott radioed to shuttle commander Charles Hobaugh shortly before the docking.
"Who is this?" Hobaugh replied jokingly.
"It's your favorite passenger," she said. "You look beautiful out there."
The opening of the hatches between the shuttle and station marked the end of Stott's tenure as a flight engineer with the station crew. She is now a mission specialist on the Atlantis crew.
If Atlantis lands as planned on Nov. 27, she will have spent 91 days in space. She will be the last space station crew member to return to Earth on a U.S. shuttle. The rest will return on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
But just before the link-up, Atlantis performed a pirouette so that cameras at the space station could do a final check for damage to the thermal tiles on the shuttle's belly.
The shuttle astronauts did their own survey of Atlantis's belly on Tuesday. Laser images showed everything on the thermal tiles was in good condition.
NASA has said that all indications so far are that the shuttle came through Monday's launch intact.
Atlantis will remain at the space station for a week, while astronauts unload roughly 13,600 kilograms of cargo, including pumps, tanks, gyroscopes and science experiments.
The shuttle's payload includes 24 willow saplings, which will be part of a Canadian experiment to help determine the role gravity plays in the formation of different kinds of wood.
The experiment, known as APEX-Cambium (advanced plant experiments on orbit), is led by Prof. Rodney Savidge of the University of New Brunswick and funded by the Canadian Space Agency. The experiment will be conducted on the space station by Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk.
Another experiment destined for the space station involves four butterfly larvae. The caterpillars are expected to develop into painted lady butterflies over the next two weeks and will return to Earth on the next shuttle in February.
With files from The Associated Press