This story was updated at 9:44 a.m. EDT.
HOUSTON - After almost three years, a NASA space shuttle is docked at the International Space Station (ISS).
The Discovery orbiter, NASA's first shuttle to fly since the 2003 Columbia tragedy, successfully docked at the ISS Thursday at 7:18 a.m. EDT (1118 GMT) after a flawless rendezvous.
"We see the space station out the window and it looks beautiful," said veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, commander of Discovery's STS-114 mission, as the shuttle approached the station.
Discovery and the space station were flying over the Pacific Ocean, just west of Chile, during their orbital meeting, NASA officials said.
"We're waiting for you," said ISS Expedition 11 flight engineer John Phillips to Discovery's crew as they docked.
Phillips and ISS Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev have lived aboard the ISS since mid-April, and have been preparing for Discovery's arrival both in space and during countless hours of preflight training on Earth.
Hooks and latches ensured a good docking between Discovery and the ISS soon after the docking, with leak and pressure checks still to be performed before both astronaut crews can meet face-to face. By 8:54 a.m. EDT (1254 GMT), all nine astronauts were inside the space station.
"Congratulations on a great docking," said NASA astronaut Steve Frick, serving as capcom, as his shift ended. "You made it look like very easy."
Discovery's ISS docking marked the first shuttle arrival at the station since Nov. 25, 2002, when Endeavour docked at the orbital facility during NASA's STS-114 mission.
NASA grounded its shuttle fleet in February 2003 after the Columbia orbiter broke apart during reentry, killing its seven-astronaut crew. Columbia was struck by foam debris from its external tank during launch, which critically damaged the orbiter and led to its destruction, investigators later found.
After two years and $1.4 billion, NASA successfully launched Discovery Tuesday on its first return to flight mission. But one day later, shuttle officials grounded the orbiter fleet again after announcing that - despite their best efforts - external tank foam is still a major hazard to the space shuttle during launch. A large chunk of foam peeled off Discovery's external tank just over two minutes into its flight, but did not strike the orbiter, shuttle program managers said.
Discovery will likely be the first and last shuttle to visit the station for awhile as engineers address the foam problem, though when the next launch may be is unknown at this time, NASA officials said.
"We're on station now and we're looking forward to several days of a lot of hard work," Collins told flight controllers.
The STS-114 crew will spend about eight days at the ISS, transferring thousands of pounds of fresh food, equipment and spare parts for the station's crew. Discovery astronauts will perform three spacewalks outside the station before casting off from the orbital platform and return home on Aug. 7.
During today's space station rendezvous, Collins took manual control of Discovery and pitched around in a backflip about 600 feet below the ISS.
While a feat of orbital acrobatics, the backflip - known as the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver (RPM) - was pivotal highlight of Discovery's flight. During the maneuver, Collins slowly flipped Discovery in a circle to give the Expedition 11 crew a clear view of the heat-resistant tiles lining its underside.
Krikalev and Phillips had about 1 minute and 40 seconds - a bit longer than the 93 seconds they trained for - to take a carefully rehearsed set of photographs to record the state of Discovery's belly tiles, which protect the orbiter from the searing heat of reentry during landings.
"We looking forward to seeing images of the RPM," Collins said, thanking the flight instructors and team that planned the shuttle's backflip maneuver. "It worked just as they predicted."
According to their photography plan, Phillips took about nine images with a 400 mm digital camera to gather a wide-view look at Discovery's belly tiles. Krikalev, using the equivalent of an 800 mm camera to gather close-up images of Discovery's landing gear door seals with an analytical resolution of about one inch, NASA officials said.
"I thought the process went really fine," Phillips said after the photography session. "Neither of us was saw anything really alarming."
Two primary areas of interest for the engineers that will review the images are a chipped tile near Discovery's nose landing gear doors, and an "area of interest" further back on the orbiter's belly, NASA deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said Wednesday.
Nine astronauts at ISS
Discovery's STS-114 crew entered the ISS about 25 minutes ahead of schedule, as both crews were eager to get on with what will be a very busy day.
To prepare for tomorrow's installation of the Italian-built Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), a cargo pod inside Discovery's payload bay, to the station, robotic arms aboard both the orbiter and space station will be put into action.
STS-114 mission specialist Wendy Lawrence and shuttle pilot James Kelly will control the ISS arm, while their crewmates Andrew Thomas and Charles Camarda manipulate the arm aboard Discovery. Thomas and Camarda will use Discovery's arm to grapple the shuttle's orbital inspection boom, then hand it off to Lawrence and Kelly, who will use the ISS arm to latch onto the boom and swing it clear of the shuttle and ISS.
The orbital boom handoff is required to clear the way for the installation of Raffaello cargo pod, NASA officials said.
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