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Shuttle Discovery Docks with Station After July 4th Launch

By John Schwartz
THE NEW YORK TIMES


HOUSTON

The space shuttle Discovery glided Thursday morning to a smooth rendezvous with the International Space Station.

The approach, at a gradual one-tenth of a foot per second as both raced through orbit at 17,500 mph, could be seen on NASA Television from a camera mounted in the Discovery’s docking mechanism.

“Capture confirmed,” the shuttle’s commander, Col. Steven W. Lindsey of the Air Force, radioed to mission control at 10:52 a.m. Eastern time, when the two spacecraft joined together about 220 miles above the earth, south of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. By 12:30 p.m., the crews had opened the hatch separating them and exchanged handshakes and hugs.

An hour before docking, the Discovery, in its second full day in orbit, did a backflip of greeting as it approached the space station. During the maneuver, in which Lindsey pulled up the nose of the craft at 3 degrees per second, the 122-foot-long, 245,000-pound shuttle turned as gracefully as a gymnast, albeit an extremely large one.

That gave crew members on the station, Pavel V. Vinogradov of Russia, and Col. Jeffrey N. Williams of the U.S. Army, the flight engineer, a leisurely view of the bottom of the Discovery so they could take 350 highly detailed photographs of it.

The flip was part of the program of inspection put in place after the 2003 Columbia disaster, when an undetected hole in the left wing caused that shuttle to break up during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board. It was only the second time that the maneuver had been performed; the first was during the Discovery’s return-to-flight mission nearly a year ago.

Lindsey executed the maneuver with the help of a small thruster, known as a Vernier, that had developed a balky thermostat last week.

The problem had threatened to delay the mission, but NASA elected to launch without fixing the thruster, saying the astronauts could maneuver without it. Once in orbit, however, Lindsey kept the left side of the shuttle facing the sun, which warmed the craft and brought the thruster up to operating temperature.

The coast of Spain was clearly visible beneath the Discovery as the maneuver began, and the hills and clouds slid by underneath.

Thomas Reiter, a German astronaut who flew with the Discovery, officially joined the station’s crew, bringing its complement to three for the first time since the Columbia disaster.

Anthony J. Ceccacci, the lead flight director for the mission, said at an afternoon briefing for reporters that the mission was going according to plan — so much so, in fact, that it threatened to become a bit dull.

“It’s boring to us that it’s quiet,” Ceccacci said. “But that’s a good thing. That means everything is going well.”

Still, mission managers will be discussing several issues. Two pieces of stiff cloth that fit between tiles, which are known as gap fillers, are poking up from between tiles on the left wing and toward the rear of the shuttle. Since any protruding object can cause unusual heating during re-entry, the managers will discuss whether the fillers constitute a threat and need to be removed, a course of action that NASA followed on its last mission.