Space Shuttle Docks at Space Station
A view of the pressurized mating adapter on the end of the Harmony node module, with the space shuttle Atlantis freshly docked to it on Feb. 9, 2008.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 4:10 p.m. EST.

HOUSTON — Seven astronauts on board space shuttle Atlantis arrived at International Space Station (ISS) Saturday, delivering a massive European science lab and a fresh crew member to the growing orbital outpost.

STS-122 shuttle commander Stephen Frick piloted the 100-ton orbiter into position at 12:17 p.m. EST (1717 GMT) on the end of the space station's U.S. Harmony node, where the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus laboratory module will be installed.

"We have a great view of ISS out the front window," Frick told Mission Control here at Johnson Space Center (JSC) as Atlantis closed in on the orbital outpost. "It looks tremendously bright and beautiful."

"Atlantis arriving!" said Expedition 16 flight engineer Dan Tani as he rung the ceremonial docking bell on board the space station. Hatches merged the two cheering crews around 1:40 p.m. EST (1840 GMT).

Since docking, mission controllers told astronauts on board the ISS that they will be delaying tomorrow's spacewalk by 24 hours.

Chris Cassidy, spacecraft communicator, also told the seven astronauts of the shuttle STS-122 crew and the three Expedition 16 space station crew members that and ESA astronaut Hans Schlegel will be replaced by mission specialist Stanley Love.

"We'll have [tomorrow's plans] to you as soon as we have them," Cassidy said.

Orbital back-flip

Before Frick parked Atlantis on orbit, however, the active Navy captain piloted the spacecraft into a 360-degree back-flip below the space station around 11:25 p.m. EST (1625 GMT).

Expedition 16 space station flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko and commander Peggy Whitson took hundreds of images of the shuttle's underbelly during the maneuver, which NASA specialists at JSC plan to pore over for any signs of damage.

Mission managers John Shannon and Mike Sarafin said Friday that there's no reason to believe launch inflicted any Atlantis has suffered any damage during its heat shield, which protects the spacecraft from the searing heat of a return to Earth. They cautioned, however, that the images gathered from today's back-flip maneuver will be necessary to clear the heat shield of damage.

Shuttle crew photos, in fact, revealed what mission controllers referred to as a tear in a thermal blanket of the shuttle's right Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod, located at the spacecraft's rear. NASA gave special instructions to Whitson and Melenchenko to take extra photos of the small, upturned flap there as well as an area on the shuttle's nose cone.

Big birthday present

Atlantis ferried the 13.5-ton Columbus laboratory module to the space station today, which coincides with Whitson's 48th birthday.

"My present is a new module," Whitson said of the Columbus lab Friday. The delivery kicks off a busy eight-to-nine days of on-orbit construction as the shuttle-space-station complex travels more than 17,500 mph (28,200 kph) above the Earth.

STS-122 mission specialists Rex Walheim and Hans Schlegel, an ESA astronaut, will conduct the first spacewalk on Sunday to prepare Columbus for attachment onto the Harmony module. Once readied, lead robotic arm operator Leland Melvin will use Atlantis' robotic arm to guide Columbus into place.

The third and final spacewalk of the mission, slated to occur on Thursday, will outfit the bus-sized laboratory with two external experiments.

The space shuttle also delivered a fresh replacement for Tani, who has lived on orbit since Oct. 12, 2007. The second ESA astronaut of the shuttle's crew — Leopold Eyharts — now takes his place.

NASA is broadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed. 

  • SPACE.com Video Interplayer: NASA's STS-122: Columbus Sets Sail for ISS
  • Test Your Smarts: Space Shuttle Countdown Quiz
  • Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage