Endeavour Delivers Tranquility and Cupola to International Space Station

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NEW YORK — NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour and its astronaut crew made a midnight docking at the international space station Feb. 10 to deliver the U.S. space agency’s last big module and a new set of windows to the orbiting laboratory.

Endeavour pulled into port at the station at 12:06 a.m. Eastern time as both spacecraft flew 346 kilometers above the Atlantic Ocean, west of Portugal.

“Station and Houston, capture confirmed,” Endeavour commander George Zamka called out as the two spacecraft linked up.

Hatches between Endeavour and the space station were opened just after 2 a.m. That’s when Endeavour’s six astronauts joined the five-man crew of the station, temporarily boosting its crew size to 11 people.

The station is currently home to two American astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and a Japanese astronaut.

A trajectory sensor in Endeavour’s payload bay used to measure the distance between the shuttle and space station failed to work properly during the rendezvous. Instead, the astronauts relied on a handheld laser tool and their eyes to make up for it.

Endeavour delivered NASA’s can-shaped Tranquility module and the bay window-like Cupola dome to the space station. Tranquility will hold the station’s main life-support systems, robotic arm station and other gear. The seven-window Cupola, which includes a round central pane that is the world’s largest space window, will be attached to an Earth-facing port on Tranquility.

The new items represent NASA’s last big add-ons for the $100 billion space station, which has been under construction since 1998 by five different space agencies representing 16 countries. The space station will be 98 percent complete once they are installed.

“We’re ready to bring up Tranquility and Cupola and work with you guys to bring it to life, so this is a beautiful day,” Zamka said.

Both additions were built for NASA by the European Space Agency. Together, they cost nearly $409 million and will require three spacewalks by astronauts to install.

Before docking, Zamka flew Endeavour through an orbital back flip below the space station so Commander Jeff Williams and his station crewmates could snap hundreds of photos of the orbiter’s tile-covered underbelly.

The photographs will be analyzed for any new dings and scrapes caused by debris during Endeavour’s early morning launch Feb. 8. Cameras showed a few pieces of foam debris falling from the shuttle’s fuel tank during liftoff, but none appeared to damage the orbiter, mission managers said.

A detailed inspection of Endeavour’s wing edges and nose cap by the shuttle astronauts also turned up no major concerns. A final analysis of that data and the new images will take several days, mission managers said.

NASA has kept a close watch on the shuttle’s exterior immediately after launches since 2003, when heat shield damage led to the loss of shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew.

Endeavour astronauts did spot a piece of a so-called flipper door seal sticking up from the top of Endeavour’s left wing and sent photos of it to Mission Control for analysis.

The seal is used to control venting air from an avionics cavity inside the shuttle’s wing during launches and landing, said LeRoy Cain, NASA’s deputy shuttle program manager. It is one of many attached to access doors on each of the shuttle’s wings. The protruding piece is near the aft of the left wing and not a safety concern to the orbiter or its crew, Cain said.

The top of a shuttle’s wing does not experience the hot, scorching temperatures experienced by its underbelly during atmospheric re-entry, Cain said. The seal is also about 1 meter long, and only a small, 10-centimeter strip peeled up at its leading edge, he added.

“From a mechanical and structural perspective, it’s really not going to pose a problem for us,” Cain said.

Endeavour will spend about eight days docked at the space station. It is due to return to Earth Feb. 20.