Shuttle Endeavour to Dock at Space Station Tonight
The International Space Station awaits the arrival of the space shuttle Endeavor's STS-123 crew on March 12, 2008.
Credit: NASA.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. ET.

HOUSTON ? Space shuttle Endeavour and its astronaut crew will finish an orbital pursuit of the International Space Station (ISS) this evening, poising themselves to deliver Japan's first orbital room and a giant two-armed robot.

The seven-astronaut STS-123 shuttle crew led by commander Dominic Gorie are due to dock with the space station around 11:25 p.m. EDT (0325 GMT March 13) this evening. Gorie, who is making his fourth spaceflight, will maneuver the 100-ton orbiter into position at the orbital outpost.

"That is one of the most exciting parts of the mission for me," Gorie said in a preflight NASA interview. "Knowing that there?s this space station crew on the other side waiting for our arrival ... makes it a really exciting time as well."

The crew awoke today to the battle scene song from the movie "Godzilla Vs. Space Godzilla," followed by the Blue Oyster Cult's radio hit "Godzilla."

"Good morning Endeavour. Doi san, ohayo gozaimasu," said Alvin Drew, shuttle spacecraft communicator, to Japanese astronaut Takao Doi from Mission Control here in Houston. "Take on today like a monster."

"We are very happy to hear Godzilla," Doi responded. "We are ready to go and we'll have a great time today docking with the space station."

Crew swap

Once the hatches separating the two crews are opened tonight, STS-123 mission specialist Garrett Reisman will replace European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who has lived aboard the station since early February 2008 as part of its Expedition 16 crew.

Since arriving, Eyharts has been busy configuring and conducting experiments inside of the ESA's 11.4-ton Columbus laboratory module.

Reisman is slated to stay on orbit until the STS-124 mission crew takes him home in June.

"I've had such a good time as part of this this crew," Reisman said of his shuttle colleagues before launch. "I think when it's time to close the hatches, I'm going to be looking around saying 'where are you guys going, why are you leaving me here?'"

Orbital acrobatics

Before Endeavour makes the on-orbit crew swap, however, Gorie will pilot the shuttle through a 360-degree backflip about 600 feet (183 meters) below the orbital laboratory.

The rendezvous pitch maneuver (RPM), as it is known, will expose the shuttle's heat-resistant underbelly so that space station commander Peggy Whitson and her crewmates can photograph it with high-powered digital cameras.

Gorie said the enormous lenses used by the station crew are like those "you see out at the end of the football field in the end-zone," and will show any chinks or damage to the heat-resistant tiles covering the shuttle's underside.

"Those cameras, they are able to detect whether there?s any white tile showing on the surface of the orbiter," Gorie said. "That would mean that the black coating on the belly tiles has been damaged and then we can go out and inspect further later on in the mission."

Debris data

The images will complement a six-hour inspection of the shuttle's wing leading edges and nose cap that Gorie, Reisman and Doi finished early Wednesday.

The crew also has some time reserved for a focused inspection on Friday, if required, and will perform a second survey to check for dings by orbital debris and micrometeorites before undocking next week.

LeRoy Cain, chair of NASA's mission management team, said Wednesday afternoon that launch photos show potential debris at 10 seconds and 83 seconds after the shuttle's liftoff. Although Cain thinks the events probably didn't damage Endeavour's heat shield, he noted that engineers will continue to pore over the inspection data and take advantage this evening's RPM photos.

"We'll let the process take its toll and let the experts analyze it," Cain said of heat shield analysis procedures. "We'll react to ? data as we see it."

On-orbit delivery

Almost immediately after latching onto the space station tonight, Endeavour astronauts will grapple a Spacelab pallet containing the pieces of the 1.72-ton Dextre robot, then secure it onto part of the station's backbone-like truss to make room for the unberth and install of the Japanese Logistics Pressurized module, or JLP.

The day after docking, Reisman and fellow mission specialist Rick Linnehan will venture outside of the space station to install it.

"It will be a momentous moment for Japan," Doi said of his nation's first orbital room.

NASA is broadcasting Endeavour's STS-123 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.