Editor?s Note: This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. EDT.
HOUSTON ? After a two-day chase, NASA?s shuttle Discovery and its seven-astronaut crew caught up with the International Space Station (ISS) Monday to deliver a massive new room for the orbiting laboratory.
Discovery?s STS-124 commander, veteran astronaut Mark Kelly, steered the shuttle to meet up with the orbiting lab at 2:03 p.m. EDT (1803 GMT).
?We?re really looking forward to seeing you guys,? Kelly said to the crew waiting on the space station after the ISS came into view.
?You have no idea how much we?re looking forward to seeing you, too,? replied U.S. astronaut Garrett Reisman from aboard the station, where he played the country western song ?Convoy? by C. W. McCall for the approaching shuttle crew.
?Keep on truckin? Discovery,? Reisman called out to the STS-124 astronauts.
About an hour and a half after docking, the crews opened the hatches between the two vehicles, sharing hugs and warm greetings all around. These orbital doors opened at 3:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT). Shortly after, station commander Sergei Volkov gave a safety briefing to familiarize the new arrivals with their home away from home
The space shuttle launched Saturday with the giant Japanese Kibo laboratory and the newest member of the station?s three-man crew; U.S. astronaut Greg Chamitoff. About the size of a large tour bus, Japan?s $1 billion Kibo science module is about 37 feet (11 meters) long, about 14.4 feet (4.4 meters) wide, and will be installed Tuesday during the first of three spacewalks planned for Discovery?s 14-day mission.
The shuttle is also delivering some much needed plumbing supplies to the space station. The lone toilet on the ISS, a Russian-made commode on the Zvezda service module, has been acting up recently, forcing the astronauts to perform a laborious and inconvenient manual pump to flush. Aboard Discovery is a new pump that will hopefully solve the potty problems.
Kelly smoothly backed up Discovery to attach to a berth at the front of the space station?s U.S. Harmony node. Astronauts aboard the station and shuttle plan to open the hatches separating their two spacecraft at about 3:52 p.m. EDT (1952 GMT) after a series of leak checks.
After Discovery arrived, STS-124 lead flight director Matt Abbott said it was ?just a beautiful rendezvous and docking day. The team and the flight crew did a fantastic job. It was just flawless.?
A delivery of ?hope?
Waiting aboard the station for Discovery?s crew are Reisman, Volkov and and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.
Reisman and Chamitoff plan to officially trade places today at 4:57 p.m. EDT (2057 GMT), when they are due to exchange custom-made seat liners on the Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station. Though Chamitoff is slated to ride home on a space shuttle in the fall, his seat liner must be in place on the Soyuz vehicle in case the space station crew needs to escape on it in an emergency.
?I think when you visit a place for a weekend or a week, or even two, you?re a visitor,? Chamitoff said in a preflight interview. ?If you stay somewhere for a month or longer you feel like you?ve lived there. I look forward to feeling like I?ve done that in my life where space and the space station were my home. I?m looking forward to [having] the honor to be able to contribute to the future in a way that is really meaningful to me.?
In addition to dropping off Chamitoff, Discovery delivered the main segment of Japan?s laboratory, which will be the largest room on the station when it is installed. This project has been in the works for Japan for more than 20 years; its designers eagerly await the day it can be used for its intended purpose.
?Just having launched and put it in the station is not enough,? Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said through a translator on Saturday after Discovery?s launch. ?The real purpose of this project is to utilize that facility to have experiments. We think we can start our experiments as early as August of this year.?
Shortly before docking Kelly flew Discovery through a back flip so the astronauts on the ISS could snap detailed photos of the vehicle?s belly that will be analyzed on the ground for signs of damage to its sensitive heat shielding. The astronauts took 302 photos, which are just beginning to be looked through.
So far, mission managers have detected some minor damage on the shielding covering the right OMS (Orbital Maneuvering Systems) thruster.
?This is not going to be any issue for us whatsoever,? said mission management chair LeRoy Cain in a briefing Monday afternoon. ?This is just a little frayed area.?
The shuttle astronauts also conducted a limited inspection of the heat-resistant panels along Discovery?s wing edges on Sunday using a camera at the end of their spacecraft?s robotic arm. They are expected to retrieve a laser-tipped inspection boom from the station on Monday and perform a comprehensive survey later in the mission to ensure Discovery?s heat shield is in good shape for landing on June 14.
After Discovery?s crew settles in to the orbital outpost today, they will spend the rest of the afternoon preparing for the mission?s first spacewalk tomorrow. The astronauts will carry the spacesuits and tools for the excursion to the station?s Quest airlock, with spacewalkers Mike Fossum and Ron Garan set to camp out inside the module under lower-pressure overnight to help prepare their bodies for work outside of the station.
NASA is broadcasting the planned launch of Discovery's STS-124 mission live on NASA TV on Saturday. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.
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