Orbital Rendezvous: Discovery Crew to Dock at ISS
ISS Expedition 14 flight engineer Thomas Reiter (foreground) and commander Michael Lopez-Alegria go over camera operations for a heat shield photo survey of the shuttle Discovery on Dec. 10, 2006.
Credit: NASA TV.

Seven astronauts aboard NASA's shuttle Discovery have a hearty welcome waiting aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where three veteran spaceflyers are preparing for their afternoon arrival.

Discovery's STS-116 astronaut crew, commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Mark Polansky, is scheduled to dock at the ISS at about 5:05 p.m. EST (2105 GMT) after a two-day orbital trek.

"I think that's going to be a really neat thing," said Polansky, who visited a much smaller ISS as the pilot of NASA's STS-98 mission in 2001, before launch. "I can only imagine how monstrous this thing is going to look with the whole truss structure across it and the extra pair of [solar] arrays going out there."

During their 12-day spaceflight, Discovery's crew expects to install a new $11-million addition to the station's portside truss, rewire the outpost's electrical grid and ferry STS-116 mission specialist Sunita "Suni" Williams to join the orbital laboratory's Expedition 14 mission.

"I hope Suni likes it," Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria said of Williams, a first-time spaceflyer, just after Discovery reached space Saturday. "She's going to be there for awhile."

Williams will relieve European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter as an Expedition 14 crewmember, and will join Lopez-Alegria and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin aboard the ISS. Reiter will return to Earth with the STS-116 crew aboard Discovery at the end of the shuttle's 12-day mission.

Orbital acrobatics ahead

Polansky will guide Discovery through some orbital acrobatics before docking at the ISS.

At about 4:04 p.m. EST (2104 GMT), the shuttle commander is expected to bring Discovery to a point about 600 feet (182 meters) below the station, then put the 100-ton spacecraft through a nine-minute back flip that will allow the Expedition 14 astronauts aboard the ISS to take high-resolution images of the orbiter's tile-lined belly [image]. The procedure is know as a Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver [image].

"That's when I'll get my first really close-up view of it," first-time spaceflyer Nicholas Patrick, who'll be sitting in Discovery's front seats during the shuttle's backflip, of the ISS. "I don't know what to expect."

Analysts on Earth will later review the tile photography for any signs of damage caused during Discovery's Saturday launch [image]. The survey follows a detailed heat shield inspection of Discovery's nosecap, wing leading edges and other areas by Patrick and his crewmates using a sensor-laden extension of the orbiter's 50-foot (15-meter) robotic arm [image].

NASA officials said late Sunday that an early analysis of the heat shield survey found little cause for concern, and were eagerly looking ahead to what promises to be a challenging ISS construction mission.

"I hope you're enjoying this early Christmas present like all of us are," STS-116 lead shuttle flight director Tony Ceccacci said.

NASA is broadcasting the shuttle Discovery's mission to the International Space Station live on NASA TV. You are invited to follow along with the STS-116 and Expedition 14 crews using SPACE.com's NASA TV feed, which is available by clicking here.

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