HOUSTON ? NASA's space shuttle Endeavour ended a high-speed chase of the International Space Station (ISS) late Wednesday, poising the orbiter's seven-astronaut crew to kick off two busy weeks of construction in space.
Veteran spaceflyer Dominic Gorie, commander of the STS-123 shuttle mission crew, backed Endeavour into docking position at about 11:49 p.m. EDT (0349 GMT March 13), just as the sun crept over the Earth and illuminated it into a bright blue ball.
"Endeavour arriving," said space station commander Peggy Whitson, ringing a ceremonial bell inside the ISS to signal the shuttle crew's arrival.
"Peggy, that's sweetest bell I've ever heard," Gorie said in response as the two spacecraft flew in tandem 213 miles (343 kilometers) over Singapore.
NASA pushed back the shuttle's expected arrival time by 24 minutes, but Gorie successfully eased it onto the station's U.S. Harmony node.
"Dom did a perfect job," said Mike Moses, lead shuttle flight director, of Gorie's piloting job. "He had it right on the money."
Prior to docking the space shuttle, the veteran commander guided the 100-ton orbiter into an orbital back flip at 10:26 p.m. EDT (0226 GMT March 13) ? a now-standard procedure used to expose the orbiter's heat-resistant belly to space station photographers.
Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko each shot hundreds of photos of the black tiling covering Endeavour's underside. Shortly after the maneuver, Whitson made quick work of beaming the digital images down to Johnson Space Center (JSC).
"It looks just spectacular," said Terry Virts, spacecraft communicator, of Whitson's photographic work.
LeRoy Cain, chair of NASA's mission management team, said engineers will pore over the images to look for any signs of damage to Endeavour's heat shield.
New cargo, crewmember
Shortly after the two crews with hugs and cheers, shuttle robotic arm operators began on-orbit construction by transferring a pallet holding Canada's two-armed robot named Dextre from the shuttle's payload bay to a space station.
Astronauts will spend most of their upcoming mission day building the 1.72-ton robot as well as installing the Japanese Logistics Pressurized (JLP) module ? the first of three pieces of Japan's school bus-sized Kibo laboratory.
Mission specialists Rick Linnehan and Garrett Reisman will perform the 6.5-hour choreographed excursion outside of the space station. Reisman, who traded places with European astronaut Leopold Eyharts Thursday morning as a member of the Expedition 16 space station crew, said he can't wait for the spacewalking activities.
"The spacewalk is going to be, I think, the highlight for my entire time up there," Reisman said in a preflight NASA interview. "I don?t think anything that I?ll do will be able to compare to going outside in a spacesuit and floating free of the station."
So far, so good
Speaking to reporters in an early morning press conference here at JSC, Moses said a preliminary look at data from a scan of Endeavour's heat shield with a sensor-tipped boom showed nothing of major concern so far.
"Everything looked really good," Moses said, noting that Endeavour's crew can perform a second and more detailed inspection if needed. "They don't suspect that we're going to have any focused inspection requirements."
Space shuttle Endeavour launched from Kennedy Space Center at 2:28:14 a.m. EDT (0648:14 GMT) on March 11, and mission managers expect the spacecraft to return to Earth the evening of March 26. At 16 planned mission days, the mission is the longest ISS-bound ever attempted by NASA.
NASA is broadcasting Endeavour's STS-123 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.