Atlantis Links Up With Space Station

By Juan A. Lozano
Associated Press
Monday, June 11, 2007

HOUSTON, June 10 -- The crews of Atlantis and the international space station greeted each other with hugs and handshakes Sunday after the space shuttle arrived at the orbiting outpost.

But amid the smiles and salutations, questions remained unanswered about a section of peeled-back thermal blanket on the shuttle.

Engineers continued to review photographs of the affected area to determine whether it could pose a problem when Atlantis returns to Earth next week.

Hatches between the two spacecraft opened about 1 1/2 hours after the shuttle docked with the space station following leak checks.

"Atlantis arriving," U.S. space station resident Sunita Williams said after the traditional ringing of a bell.

Atlantis's astronauts floated into the space station's Destiny laboratory and hugged each of the residents, who also include commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and cosmonaut Oleg Kotov.

Before reaching the space station, Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow told Yurchikhin that shuttle astronaut Clayton Anderson was ready to relieve Williams on the station.

Sturckow eased the shuttle into the station's docking port. Latches fastened the shuttle and orbiting space lab together at 3:36 p.m. The shuttle's two-day chase of the space station ended about 210 miles above southeastern Australia.

It was the first visit this year by a shuttle to the space station.

The shuttle was delivering Anderson, the newest member of the space station's crew, as well as a new segment to the orbiting outpost.

Before Atlantis's arrival, astronaut John D. "Danny" Olivas took more pictures from inside the shuttle of the area where the thermal blanket had peeled back.

NASA engineers are focusing their attention on a gap about 4 inches by 6 inches that was discovered after Friday's launch from Kennedy Space Center.

Engineers were not sure whether stitching on the blanket came loose or whether the blanket, covering a pod of engines near the shuttle's tail, was hit by debris.

The rest of the vehicle appeared to be in fine shape, NASA said. Sensors reported six hits on the wing during launch but engineers were not concerned.

Astronauts inside the space station also took photographs of the shuttle's belly when Sturckow maneuvered the shuttle into a 360-degree back-flip -- part of an inspection technique.

Engineers want to make sure there is no damage from launch like the kind that doomed Columbia in 2003.

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