Space Station Crew Welcomes Japan's First Cargo Ship
The station’s robotic arm attaches the unpiloted Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node after its inaugural arrival on Sept. 17, 2009.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 6:37 p.m. EDT.

Japan?s first-ever space cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station Thursday to end a flawless maiden voyage to the orbiting lab.

The gleaming space freighter, dubbed the H-2 Transfer Vehicle 1 (HTV-1), approached the space station from below after a week-long chase so astronaut Nicole Stott could pluck it from orbit using the outpost?s robotic arm as both spacecraft flew 225 miles (365 km) above western Romania.

Stott and her crewmates marveled at the new spacecraft as they watched it draw near through station windows. She described the 33-foot (10-meter) freighter looked like a ?very shiny, gold? spaceship.  

?It just looks fantastic,? Stott radioed Mission Control. ?We?re going to get some pictures and some video, full coverage of this.?

Stott had just 99 seconds to grab onto the HTV-1 spacecraft with the station?s robotic arm when it was 30 feet (9 meters) away. But the maneuver went smoothly and applause erupted from NASA?s Mission Control in Houston. The station?s six-person crew toasted the freighter?s arrival with a drink of recycled water.

?We had an amazing time doing this, we?re so happy to have this beautiful vehicle here,? Stott said after grabbing HTV-1 at 3:47 p.m. EDT (1947 GMT). ?We look very [much] forward to going in tomorrow and finding all the supplies that I?m sure you?ve stored there for us.?

Japan?s first space freighter

Japan?s HTV spacecraft is the latest in a fleet of unmanned international cargo ships to deliver supplies and hardware to the space station. It joins Russia?s Progress freighters, which make routine trips to the station, and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle that debuted last year. Steady cargo deliveries by the various craft will be especially vital to support the station?s six-person crews once NASA retires its space shuttle fleet in the next year or so.

?After the space shuttle starts to fade away, we will take over responsibility to bring stuff up to the space station,? said Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who is due to launch to the station in December, in a press conference just before HTV-1 arrived. ?We're really looking forward to the success of this mission.?

Built for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the HTV spacecraft is about as long as a bus, 14 feet (4.4 meters) wide and covered in solar panels attached to its cylindrical hull. It is capable of hauling up to six tons of cargo to the space station, but HTV-1 is carrying about five tons for its maiden flight.

Japan spent about $680 million since 1997 to develop the spacecraft, JAXA officials said. HTV-1, they added, cost about $220 million.

The spacecraft will stay linked to the station until about Nov. 1, when it will be jettisoned and commanded to intentionally destroy itself by burning up in the Earth?s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

Inside HTV-1

The HTV is a versatile cargo ship that - unlike Russian and European vehicles - can deliver equipment for both the inside and outside of the space station. It has a giant sliding drawer in one side that carries experiments and hardware that can be retrieved by the station?s robotic arm.

Two experiments, one from NASA and the other from JAXA, are stored on HTV-1 and will be retrieved next week by the station crew and attached to the external science porch on Japan?s $1 billion Kibo laboratory.

Food, laptop computers and other supplies make up the bulk of the internal cargo stowed in the pressurized section that station astronauts can access through an entry hatch at one end, mission managers said.

JAXA launched the HTV-1 cargo ship in the predawn hours of Sept. 11 Japan Standard Time, though it was still afternoon on Sept. 10 at NASA's station Mission Control Center in Houston. The space freighter lifted off atop the new H-2B rocket, which also performed flawlessly, from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

Historic test flight

The HTV-1?s arrival was more than a test flight for Japan. It also demonstrated the capture of free-flying spacecraft using the station?s robotic arm, a talent NASA will need to grab commercial cargo ships built by the American companies Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp.

Stott, who represents NASA, said Japan?s HTV spacecraft is a symbol of cooperation among the 16 different countries working to build the $100 billion space station. Stott, an American, and Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne caught the Japanese spacecraft using the station?s Canadian-built robotic arm. Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk then used the arm to gingerly attach the cargo ship to an Earth-facing berth on the outpost?s aptly named Harmony module at 6:26 p.m. EDT (2226 GMT).

The station is currently home to two Americans, two Russians, and one astronaut each from the Canadian and European space agencies.

?It?s pretty cool, isn?t it?? Stott told before leaving Earth last month. ?I think it?s really incredible. It speaks to what this program has really been all about?Plain and simple, it is an international activity.?

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