This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. ET.
The shuttle Discovery linked up to the International Space Station early Wednesday, bringing 13 people together on two different spaceships — including the largest orbital gathering of female astronauts in history.
Discovery docked at the space station at 3:44 a.m. EDT (0744 GMT) in a flawless orbital rendezvous despite the failure of a main antenna dish usually used to provide radar data during shuttle approaches. The shuttle is hauling tons of fresh supplies and equipment for astronauts living on the nearly complete station.
"Houston and station, capture confirmed," Discovery pilot Jim Dutton said. The two spaceships were flying in darkness 215 miles (346 km) over the Caribbean sea at the time.
The hatches between the two spacecraft were opened at couple of hours later, giving Mission Control their first television views of Discovery's crew since the astronauts launch. The shuttle's antenna failure had prevented such broadcasts.
"The crew made it look easy, so that all went well," lead shuttle flight director Richard Jones told reporters after the docking.
New space records
The station astronauts rang a ceremonial bell to welcome their shuttle crewmates to the orbiting lab. The baker's dozen of astronauts includes nine men and four women, the latter being a new record for the most women in space.
"Hey guys, we can't wait to see you!" station astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson of NASA told Discovery's crew as the shuttle approached the orbiting lab.
Caldwell is the only one of the four female astronauts in orbit not flying on Discovery. She is part of the station's Expedition 23 crew, where she serves as a flight engineer.
The other three women are on Discovery, a mix of aerospace engineers and a teacher-turned spaceflyer. One of them, Naoko Yamazaki, is Japan's second female astronaut and is joining her fellow Japanese spaceflyer Soichi Noguchi on the station — the first time two astronauts from Japan have met up in space.
"Soichi-san, we are coming soon. Looking forward to it," Yamazaki said just before docking. Noguchi said he looked forward to seeing her smile.
The 13 people gathered together on the linked shuttle Discovery and station tie the record for the largest orbital crowd in one place in space.
Discovery is hauling a cargo module packed with 17,000 pounds (7,711 kg) of science experiments, supplies and other gear for the space station — including a new astronaut bedroom and a new system that can create water from waste hydrogen and carbon dioxide gases. The shuttle launched into space on Monday.
The astronauts also plan to deliver a hefty new gyroscope and ammonia cooling system tank for the space station's exterior. The parts are so big, only NASA's space shuttles can carry them.
It will take three spacewalks to install them on the space station, with the first set to begin on Friday.
A back flip in space
Before Discovery docked at the space station, shuttle commander Alan Poindexter guided the 100-ton spacecraft through a graceful back flip while flying 600 feet (183 meters) below the station.
"It's almost poetry," Jones said of the shuttle's flip.
The orbital flip is a standard shuttle event that allows astronauts inside the space station to take more than 300 high-resolution photos of the heat shield tiles lining Discovery's belly. The photos will be beamed to Mission Control so engineers can study them to determine health of Discovery's heat shield.
"You guys are looking be-yoo-tiful," Noguchi said after the photo session.
The pre-docking photo session is one of several safety inspections performed on every shuttle mission since NASA's 2003 Columbia disaster, in which heat shield damage led to the loss of the Columbia orbiter during re-entry. Seven astronauts were killed in the accident.
On Tuesday, shuttle astronauts scanned the heat shield panels lining Discovery's wing edges and nose cap using a 100-foot (30-meter) inspection pole. They'll perform at least one more similar scan later in the mission.
But because Discovery's main Ku-band antenna — which is used to transmit large data files to Earth — is not working, the shuttle astronauts had to record all 40 gigabytes of inspection data on tape. They'll beam it down to Earth overnight tonight using the space station's communication network, mission managers said.
"It'll be awhile before we get all that down," Jones said. The astronauts transferred the data into a hard drive and physically installed into a different computer on the space station in order to send it to Earth.
On Wednesday night, Discovery's crew is due to pluck the cylindrical cargo pod out the shuttle's payload bay, and then attach it to the space station so it can be unloaded over the next week. The Italian-built cargo pod, called Leonardo, is about the size of a small bus and will be moved into position using robotic arms.
Discovery is currently flying one of NASA's last few shuttle missions planned before the agency retires its three-orbiter fleet in the fall. Three more shuttle flights are scheduled after this one.
SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Discovery's STS-131 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik and Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.
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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.