Shuttle Atlantis Docks at Space Station
Space shuttle Atlantis performs an orbital back flip while flying underneath the International Space Station on May 16, 2010, in this view from a camera mounted on the exterior of the station. Atlantis is flying its 32nd and final flight on the mission, NASA's STS-132 trek to the station.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 2:54 p.m. EDT.

The space shuttle Atlantis linked up with the International Space Station for what may be its final time Sunday to deliver a new Russian chamber and spare parts for the orbiting laboratory.

Atlantis docked with the space station at about 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT) as both spaceships flew more than 220 miles (354 km) over the South Pacific Ocean. The six-man crew on Atlantis doubled the station's population to 12 people at the orbiting lab.

"Yee-haw! It's good to hear your voice," station astronaut Soichi Noguchi, representing Japan, told the shuttle crew.

Atlantis commander Ken Ham said the space station was "brilliantly glowing" outside the shuttle's windows.

"It is an absolutely stunning view," Ham said. Atlantis launched Friday from Florida and is flying what is expected to be its final flight. [Atlantis shuttle launch photos.]

The two space crews shared warm hugs and bright smiles after meeting in person at 12:18 p.m. EDT (1618 GMT) after the hatches between their vehicles were opened.

"It's bigger than when we remember and, speaking for myself, better than we remember," Ham said after entering the station. He last visited in 2008. "I love this place."

A wayward piece of space junk flew by the space station about an hour after Atlantis docked, but was no threat to the astronauts on the station or shuttle Atlantis, NASA officials said.

"The debris passed uneventfully by the International Space Station and the shuttle Atlantis," shuttle flight director Mike Sarafin said.

Early predictions suggested the bit of orbital trash could zip within 6 miles (9.6 km) of the station, but it ultimately flew by at range nearly 10 miles (16 km), ruling out any need to move the outpost out of the way, Sarafin said. NASA would have ordered the station to move only if the debris came within 10 km, he added.

Busy mission for Atlantis

Atlantis is delivering a new $200 million Russian room ? called the Mini Research Module-1, or "Rassvet" ("Dawn" in Russian) ? to the space station, along with a load of spare parts, including a space-to-ground antenna and a set of new solar array batteries.

NASA is also carrying about 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg) of cargo inside the Rassvet module, including new laptops, food and supplies for the crew. Three spacewalks are planned to make the orbital deliveries.

On one of those spacewalks, astronauts will try to free a snagged cable on a camera Atlantis' 100-foot (15-meter) inspection pole. The cable interfered with the Atlantis astronauts' inspection of their heat shield on Saturday.

The astronauts now plan to finish the survey no earlier than Tuesday using other cameras on the shuttle's robotic arm, mission managers said.

Later today, the astronauts will pluck a massive cargo carrier laden with solar array batteries, a communications antenna and other spare parts and attach it to a storage point on the station for use by spacewalking astronauts over the next week.

Stunning space photos

Before docking at the space station, Ham flew Atlantis through an orbital back flip while hovering beneath the orbiting lab as part of another heat shield inspection.

The spaceship acrobatics allowed astronauts inside the station to snap nearly 400 high-resolution photos of the thousands of black heat-resistant tiles lining Atlantis' belly. Mission Control also asked for an extra photographer (to make a total of three) to photograph the part of Atlantis' heat shield that was missed during the Saturday heat shield inspection, Sarafin said.

Noguchi said the Atlantis photo session was stunning.

"Thanks for the pictures. It's all about the pictures," said shuttle pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli. Noguchi promised to have the photos ready for the astronauts to see once they arrived.

"It was perfect lighting and you guys looked marvelous," Noguchi said.

Heat shield inspections have a standard part of every NASA shuttle mission since the tragic loss of seven astronauts on the shuttle Columbia in 2003 due to wing damage.

In addition to the inspections so far, Atlantis' crew will perform a final scan of their wing edges and nose cap after leaving the space station later in the flight to search for dings from micrometeorites or debris.

But for now, the Atlantis astronauts will begin preparing a busy construction job at the space station.

The astronauts plan to perform the first of their three planned spacewalks at the space station on Monday and attach the new Rassvet research module on Tuesday.

This mission is 32nd and last planned mission for Atlantis and the 132nd shuttle flight for NASA since its orbiter fleet began flying in 1981. Only two more missions are scheduled after this one before NASA retires the shuttle fleet.

SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Atlantis' STS-132 mission to the International Space Station with Senior Writer Clara Moskowitz and Managing Editor Tariq Malik based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.