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Discovery docks, making last visit to space station

Craft examined for damage that occurred in liftoff

By Marcia Dunn
Associated Press / February 27, 2011

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CAPE CANAVERAL — Space shuttle Discovery arrived at the international space station yesterday, making its final visit before being parked at a museum.

“What took you guys so long?’’ asked the space station’s commander, Scott Kelly.

Discovery should have come and gone last November, but was grounded by fuel tank cracks. It blasted off Thursday with two seconds to spare after being held up by a balky ground computer.

Shuttle commander Steven Lindsey and his crew spotted the space station from 40 miles out, and the linkup occurred 220 miles above Australia.

Discovery — flying on its final voyage — will spend at least a week at the orbiting outpost. It’s carrying a closet-style chamber full of supplies as well as the first humanoid robot to fly in space. The compartment will be attached permanently to the space station early this week.

Altogether, there are 12 people aboard the joined spacecraft, representing the United States, Russia, and Italy. And in a historic first, four of the five major partners have vessels docked there right now, including cargo ships from Japan and Europe. The entire conglomeration has a mass of 1.2 million pounds, including the shuttle.

The station is so sprawling and packed with vehicles that it took longer than usual for Discovery to be tightly cinched down. The two crews had to wait for motion to subside between their craft, delaying the opening of the hatches and threatening to put off last night’s planned installation of a platform holding a spare radiator.

Just before pulling in, Discovery performed a slow, 360-degree backflip so space station cameras could capture any signs of launch damage.

At least four pieces of debris broke off the fuel tank during liftoff, and one of the strips of insulating foam struck Discovery’s belly.

NASA managers do not believe the shuttle was damaged. That’s because the foam loss occurred late in the launch, preventing a hard impact. The hundreds of digital pictures snapped by two space station residents should confirm that; specialists on the ground will spend the next day or two poring over all the images.

As a precaution, every shuttle crew since the 2003 Columbia disaster has had to thoroughly check for possible damage to the thermal shielding, which must be robust for reentering earth’s atmosphere.

The robot launched aboard Discovery — Robonaut 2 — will remain at the space station, all boxed up for at least another few months. It’s an experimental machine from the waist up that will be tested before attempting jobs inside the orbiting complex. The idea is for R2 to eventually serve as an astronaut assistant.

“We’re here!’’ Robonaut said in a Twitter update following yesterday’s docking. It actually was posted by a human colleague on the ground.

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