July 17, 2009

Endeavour Docks With ISS

Space shuttle Endeavour successfully docked with the International Space Station about 220 miles above the Gulf of Carpentaria on Friday afternoon.

Shuttle Commander Mark Polansky directed the craft to dock with the Harmony node of the ISS at 1:47 p.m. EDT.

The hatches will be opened at 3:43 p.m. after routine leak checks are finalized. Once the hatch is opened, the seven crewmembers will increase the orbiting outpost's crew count to a record number of 13.

Alongside Polansky, Endeavour's crew of Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Dave Wolf, Christopher Cassidy, Tom Marshburn, Tim Kopra and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette will soon meet with the current space station crew. Kopra is expected to replace Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. Wakata has spent 124 days in space.

Endeavour lifted off from The Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Wednesday after five previous failed attempts - two due to possible hydrogen leaks in the shuttle's external fuel tank last month, and three for bad weather conditions since Saturday.

The Endeavour crew is expected to install a permanent platform to the Japanese laboratory Kibo during five spacewalks intended to last 32.5 hours. Astronauts will also be installing an experiment storage pallet that will be detached and returned with the shuttle, NASA said.

Commander Polansky snapped images of Endeavour's underside during docking. The images will be sent to NASA in Houston, where they will be analyzed to determine whether or not the shuttle sustained damages from falling pieces of foam insulation during Wednesday's launch.

Footage of Endeavour's launch shows several pieces of debris falling from the fuel tank into the shuttle's heat shield.

"We're not worried about this one, but we need to understand what's going on for the next flight," shuttle program manager John Shannon told reporters Friday morning.

The space agency has decided not to launch another craft until it determines what is causing the issue. NASA has faced concerns with the issue since the tragedy of space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

"This is new. I don't know if we have a material issue or a process issue but we'll get to the bottom of it and clear it before the August flight."

However, Shannon said the footage shows strips of insulation peeling off from part of the tank that had not previously caused any problems.

"We have a bit of a mystery," he said. "It's from an area we don't typically expect to see foam to be lost."

NASA intends to launch seven more crafts to the International Space Station; the nearest one is planned for August 18.

"It did not hurt us, apparently, on this flight, because it came off so late. But we'll need to understand that before the next flight," Shannon said.

Shannon told Reuters he had "pretty high confidence" that the agency would complete tests to understand the issue in time for the August 18 launch of space shuttle Discovery, but NASA engineers "have a lot of work to do."

NASA said the first opportunity to land Endeavour would be Friday, July 31 at 10:45 a.m. at the Kennedy Space Center.


Image Caption: Backdropped by a blue and white Earth and the blackness of space, a partial view of Space Shuttle Endeavour's payload bay, vertical stabilizer and orbital maneuvering system (OMS) pods are featured in this image photographed by a STS-127 crew member from an aft flight deck window.


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