Shuttle Atlantis Closing In On Space Station
The current configuration of the International Space Station as of Sept. 2009 at the end of NASA's STS-128 mission to deliver supplies and new gear.
Credit: NASA

NASA?s space shuttle Atlantis is closing in on the International Space Station and on track to link up with the orbiting laboratory later today.

Atlantis and its crew of six astronauts are due to arrive at the space station at about 11:53 a.m. EST (1653 GMT) to deliver tons of vital spare parts and other bulky gear that only NASA?s shuttles can haul.

?We?re ready to get to station tomorrow,? shuttle commander Charlie Hobaugh radioed Mission Control in Houston late Tuesday. ?See you then.?

But before Atlantis can dock, Hobaugh will fly the 100-ton spacecraft through an orbital back flip about 600 feet (182 meters) below the space station. The maneuver will allow astronauts aboard the station to snap high-resolution photos of the thousands of heat-resistant tiles on Atlantis belly as part of a standard heat shield check.

An early look at data from a Tuesday inspection of the heat shield panels lining Atlantis? nose cap and wing edges has found no immediate cause for concern. NASA experts will continue to analyze that data, as well as the images from today?s photo session, to be sure.

?Preliminarily, we don?t have any significant issues,? said LeRoy Cain, head of Atlantis? mission management team. NASA has kept a close watch on the health of its shuttles since the tragic loss of shuttle Columbia and its astronaut crew in 2003 due to heat shield damage.

Atlantis launched Monday and is hauling more than 27,000 pounds (12,246 kg) of cargo to the space station, including a pair of massive carrier platforms laden with large spare parts for the orbiting laboratory. The spares, which include huge gyroscopes, pumps and other gear, will be installed at the station during three spacewalks planned for the 11-day space mission.

The shuttle will also ferry NASA astronaut Nicole Stott back home from the space station.

Stott has been living aboard the station since late August as part of the outpost?s six-person crew. She will return home on Atlantis and is currently the last astronaut planned to be rotated on and off the station using a NASA shuttle before the fleet is retired in the next year or so.

Stott and her crewmates have been tackling some glitches with the station?s systems.

A 150-pound (68-kg) device used to distill astronaut urine into pure drinking water is broken and will have to be returned to Earth on Atlantis. The stations? water processing assembly is also experiencing problems.

Neither glitch is expected to pose any concern to Atlantis? week-long stay at the space station, Cain said.

Mission Control roused the Atlantis astronauts at 4:28 a.m. EST (0928 GMT) with the song ?Higher Ground? by Stevie Wonder, a tune specially selected for mission specialist Bobby Satcher, who is making his first spaceflight.

?We?re looking forward to a good day,? Satcher said.

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SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Atlantis' STS-129 mission to the International Space Station with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz and Managing Editor Tariq Malik based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.