Hard Hat Area: Shuttle Atlantis Docks at ISS Construction Site
NASA's Atlantis orbiter can be seen moored to a docking port at the aft end of the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory in this view from an exterior camera on Sept. 11, 2006.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 10:41 am EDT.

HOUSTON - An orbital construction crew of six astronauts arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) early Monday as NASA's Atlantis shuttle docked at the high-flying laboratory to deliver its first major addition since 2002.

Shuttle commander Brent Jett deftly berthed Atlantis to a docking port on the station's U.S.-built Destiny module at 6:48 a.m. EDT (1048 GMT) as both spacecraft circled the Earth at about 17,500 miles per hour.

"We've got a good view of you as well, you're looking good," ISS Expedition 13 flight engineer Jeffrey Williams told Jett as the shuttle neared the ISS. "See you soon."

Atlantis docked at the space station as the two spacecraft flew 218 statute miles above the southern Pacific Ocean, ending a two-day chase that began with the shuttle's successful Saturday launch.

In addition to Jett, Atlantis' STS-115 astronaut crew includes pilot Chris Ferguson and mission specialists Joseph Tanner, Daniel Burbank, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Steven MacLean, a Canadian Space Agency shuttle flyer. The shuttle's cargo bay also carries a $372 million set of new solar arrays and two massive trusses, which the STS-115 astronauts will attach to the space station's port side this week.

"Atlantis is headed your way with a new piece of space station in its trunk," flight controllers told Williams as the shuttle approached the ISS.

Williams and his ISS crewmates, Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Thomas Reiter, have been anxiously awaiting Atlantis' arrival, which marks the second shuttle visit to the space station since July's STS-121 mission with Discovery.

By 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT), all nine astronauts were trading smiles and handshakes inside the space station's Destiny laboratory.

Atlantis' STS-115 mission marks NASA's third shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia accident. The mission is also the first ISS construction flight since NASA's STS-113 mission in November 2002.

Today's docking also marked Atlantis' first return to the ISS since its STS-112 mission in October 2002, NASA said.

Resuming ISS Construction

One of the first major chores of the post-docking day for the STS-115 crew is the removal of the 35,000-pound Port 3/Port 4 (P3/P4) truss segments tucked inside Atlantis' cargo bay.

Burbank will use Atlantis' Canadian-built robotic arm to haul the 17.5-ton segments - which also feature two 120-foot solar arrays carefully folded and packed away - free of the shuttle so MacLean and Williams can grapple the hardware with the space station's own robotic appendage.

"The idea was to get the truss out and get a head start," said Kirk Shireman, NASA's ISS Mission Management Team chairman for Atlantis' flight, during a Sunday briefing.

Shireman said that shuttle-ISS dockings are typically followed by relatively light duties. But by pre-positioning the P3/P4 truss today, the STS-115 crew will save time for their mission's first spacewalk on Tuesday, he added.

MacLean will be the first from his country to wield the station's Canadian-built robotic arm, known as Canadarm2, when he accepts the P3/P4 truss from Atlantis' outstretched grapple in what he's called "the Great Canadian Handshake."  

That robotic "handshake" is scheduled to occur at 10:45 a.m. EDT (1445 GMT) and be shown live on NASA TV.  

Mission control roused the STS-115 crew with a solo cello performance specially chosen for Burbank and performed by his children.

Busy Docked Mission

Atlantis' ISS arrival kicks off eight, fast-paced days of joint operations for the STS-115 and ISS astronauts.

By Friday, the two crews expect to have staged three spacewalks from the station's Quest airlock to equip the P3/P4 truss with vital power and cooling lines, remove launch restraints and deploy the new solar arrays.

The first of those extravehicular activities (EVAs) will be performed by Tanner - a veteran of ISS solar panel work - and Stefanyshyn-Piper, who is making the first spaceflight and spacewalks of her astronaut career during the STS-115 mission.

Instead of sleeping in Atlantis tonight, Tanner and Stefanyshyn-Piper will spend the night in the station's Quest airlock, which will be shut at about 1:57 p.m. EDT (1757 GMT) today.

Nicknamed the EVA "campout," the move allows spacewalkers to purge nitrogen from their bodies while they sleep at a slightly lower atmospheric pressure - 10.2 psi - rather than the standard 14.7 psi aboard Atlantis or the ISS.

Shireman said the campout will save Tanner and Stefanyshyn-Piper time preparing for tomorrow's packed spacewalk, but sadly includes none of the traditional Earthly camping treats.

"Despite popular belief there are no smores or fires involved," Shireman said.

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