Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Live In Orbit: Atlantis Aims To Dock At Space Station

The Atlantis astronauts plan a high-flying arrival at the International Space Station today after a two-day trip from Kennedy Space Center.

With mission commander Charlie Hobaugh at the controls, Atlantis is scheduled to dock at the outpost just before noon and then join six researchers aboard the lab two hours later.

"Congratulations on a beautiful, flawless launch, Atlantis!" Mission Control told the crew in a message Tuesday. "Now the fun begins."

Atlantis and six astronauts blasted off from NASA’s central Florida spaceport on Monday, zooming off on a supersonic commute to work. A 2:28 p.m. launch was precisely timed to put Atlantis on course for a link-up at the station at 11:53 a.m. today.

On its final approach, Atlantis will fly a 360-degree, nose-over-tail back flip – an eight-minute maneuver aimed at pointing the belly of the shuttle at the station.

Camera-wielding astronauts on the station will snap high-resolution photos of the fragile thermal tiles that line the underside of the orbiter. The idea is to spot any damage that might endanger the spaceship during atmospheric reentry.

The maneuver has been standard operating procedure since NASA returned the shuttle fleet to service after the 2003 Columbia accident. Wing damage that went undetected led to that catastrophe.

The astronauts completed another post-Columbia safety measure Tuesday: inspecting Atlantis’ wing panels and nose cap with a sensor-laden boom. No obvious damage was spotted.

The high-resolution photos, inspection data and launch imagery all will be examined by engineers on the ground before Atlantis is cleared to return to Earth.

Atlantis is delivering 27,000 pounds of large spare parts to the station.

Another special delivery: The wife of Atlantis astronaut Randy Bresnik, Rebecca, will give birth to the couple’s second child – a daughter – on Friday. A space-to-ground video link-up will serve as the next best thing to being there.

Bresnik and his crewmates are due back at KSC on Nov. 27.

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