Space shuttle Discovery arrived at the International Space Station on Saturday, making its final visit before being parked at a museum.
“What took you guys so long?” asked the space station’s commander, Scott Kelly.
Discovery should have come and gone last November, but was grounded by fuel tank cracks. It blasted off on Thursday with just two seconds to spare after being held up by a computer error.
“Yeah, I don’t know, we kind of waited until like the last two seconds,” said shuttle commander Steven Lindsey.
The link up occurred 220 miles above Australia. Discovery – flying on its final voyage – will spend at least a week at the orbiting outpost. It is carrying an array of supplies and the first humanoid robot to fly in space.
The compartment full of supplies will be attached permanently to the space station early next week.
Altogether, there are 12 people aboard the joined spacecraft, representing the United States, Russia and Italy. And in a historic first, four of the five major partners have vessels docked there right now, including cargo ships from Japan and Europe. The entire conglomeration has a mass of 540,000 kilograms, including the shuttle.
Just before pulling in, Discovery performed a slow 360-degree rotation so space station cameras could capture any signs of launch damage. At least four pieces of debris broke off the fuel tank during lift off, and one of the strips of insulating foam struck Discovery’s belly.
NASA managers do not believe the shuttle was damaged but the hundreds of digital pictures snapped by two space station residents should confirm that and experts on the ground will spend the next day or two poring over all the images.
As a precaution, every shuttle crew since the 2003 Columbia disaster has had to thoroughly check for possible damage to the thermal shielding, which must be robust for re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.