This story was updated at 8:37 p.m. EST.
A crew of astronaut plumbers and electricians arrived at the International Space Station aboard NASA’s shuttle Endeavour on Sunday to add an extra kitchen, bathroom and new bedrooms to the orbiting laboratory.
Under the deft control of shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, Endeavour docked with the space station at about 5:01 p.m. EST (2101 GMT) as the two spacecraft flew 212 miles (341 km) above northern India near the Chinese border. All 10 astronauts celebrated the docking with some hugs and laughs after opening the hatches between their spacecraft two hours later.
“Welcome Endeavour, you guys look awesome,” station commander Michael Fincke said after Endeavour’s crew floated aboard. “We understand that this house is in need of a makeover and you’re the crew to do it.”
Endeavour launched toward the station late Friday carrying seven astronauts and an Italian-built cargo pod filled with more than 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg) of new gear to help support the orbital outpost’s shift to larger, six-person crews next year.
In addition to the new kitchen, toilet and two bedrooms, the shuttle is carrying a space cooler so station astronauts can have cold drinks for the first time in the eight years astronauts have lived aboard. Endeavour is also toting a new water recycling system designed to collect astronaut urine, sweat and other wastewater into drinkable water.
“We figured we’d go for a 10-year anniversary party for the International Space Station, so that’s what we showed up for,” said Ferguson, who will be aboard the station with his crew during its 10th anniversary on Nov. 20. “We’re looking forward to working on your house and making it look a little bit better when we’re done.”
Before Endeavour docked at the station, Ferguson flew the 100-ton spacecraft through graceful orbital back flip so Fincke and station crewmate Greg Chamitoff could photograph the shuttle’s belly-mounted heat shield. Analysts on Earth will pore over the high-resolution images over the next several days to look for any signs of damage, though Fincke reported that, to his eye, the shuttle appeared to be in good health.
“These kind of lenses are essentially big telescopes and Greg and I, with our professionally trained, eyes could not see anything obvious,” Fincke told Mission Control. “It looks like it was clean and dry, as they say. It looked really good.”
NASA has kept close watch its orbiter heat shields since launch debris damaged the shuttle Columbia’s wing-mounted shielding during its 2003 launch, leading to the loss of the spacecraft and its crew during re-entry 16 days later.
Mission managers said after today’s docking that of two pieces of debris spotted from Endeavour’s Friday launch, one was erroneous while the other did not strike the shuttle at all. Analysts will work through tonight to decide if a focused inspection of Endeavour’s starboard wing will be necessary on Monday, they added.
Orbital makeover for station
The joint crews of Endeavour and the space station have a packed docked period ahead to move nearly seven tons of supplies from the shuttle’s cargo pod into the orbiting laboratory. Most of that time will be spent moving refrigerator-sized racks of equipment into place and routing plumbing and electrical lines to activate them.
“Space station is still a construction zone,” Endeavour mission specialist Don Pettit said in a preflight NASA interview. “So what we are doing to space station is like finished carpentry.”
Unlike past construction flights, which delivered new modules, truss segments or solar wings to the station, Endeavour is hauling the internal life support gear that will allow the outpost to double its crew size to keep up with added maintenance and science research tasks.
“Knowing that we have a crucial role in putting the guts of the space station back together is thrilling,” Ferguson told SPACE.com before flight.
Also vital is the rather mundane cleaning and grease job on the station’s starboard side gear, a 10-foot (3-meter) wide ring that spins outboard solar wings like a paddlewheel to track the sun. Metal grit from the gear grinding into itself has damaged it, requiring an intense clean-up and lube job for Endeavour spacewalkers.
“It’s a pretty humble workman-like task and I’m sure there’s going to be some bobbles as we figure out how to do it,” NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told SPACE.com before launch, adding that learning how to make unexpected repairs is vital for human space exploration. “This is the kind of stuff that you have to do.”
Crew swap on tap
Endeavour is also ferrying NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus to the station, where she plans to replace Chamitoff as a flight engineer with the outpost’s Expedition 18 crew. Chamitoff has lived aboard the space station since June, and will return home aboard Endeavour when it lands in two weeks.
“That was a spectacular, beautiful sight to see you guys coming up underneath us and, wow!” Chamitoff told Endeavour’s crew after his ride home arrived. “I am smiling from ear to ear.”
Magnus, meanwhile, is beginning a planned three-month stay aboard the station with Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov. A special seat liner made for Magnus will be installed inside a Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station later today, signifying her official move to the station’s crew. Her family roused Endeavour’s crew this morning with the song “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones.
“I want to thank my family for that music and I’m looking forward to moving into my new home today,” Magnus radioed down to Mission Control in Houston.
Ferguson and Endeavour’s lead spacewalker Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper are making their second trip to the station since 2006, when they helped deliver a pair of new solar arrays. Magnus last visited the station in 2002, while Pettit spent 5 1/2 months aboard the outpost as an Expedition 6 flight engineer between 2002 and 2003. Endeavour pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Steve Bowen and Shane Kimbrough are each making their first career spaceflight.
“I don’t think anybody is more happy to be back than Don, though,” Ferguson said.
After their brief celebration, the 10 astronauts went back to work to begin shifting high priority cargo between Endeavour and the space station, which more than tripled its population with the shuttle’s arrival.
“On to work,” Fincke said. “Man, this place just got smaller.”
NASA is providing live coverage of Endeavour’s STS-126 mission on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com’s mission coverage and NASA TV feed.
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