CAPE CANAVERAL — Atlantis arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday for what could be its last visit, delivering fresh batteries and other equipment to help keep the outpost running long after the shuttle program ends.
For now, Atlantis’ dance card is empty after this flight, and NASA has just two missions remaining. But there’s a push to keep the space shuttles flying until next June and to give Atlantis one last hurrah.
Shuttle commander Kenneth Ham was visibly moved as he floated into the space station. He grabbed two of the station astronauts in a tight embrace
“It’s bigger than we remember and, speaking for myself, better than I remember,” Ham said. “I love this place.”
The rendezvous by Atlantis was accompanied by considerably more picture-taking than usual, to make up for a curtailed safety survey the day before.
Three of the six space station residents snapped a total of 398 pictures using zoom lenses as Atlantis made its final approach. The shuttle performed a slow backflip so all its surfaces could be photographed. An hour later, it docked flawlessly with the station, 220 miles above the South Pacific.
On Saturday, a snagged cable prevented the six shuttle astronauts from properly inspecting their ship. NASA ordered up extra pictures and added an additional space station photographer.
The astronauts may try to free the cable during a spacewalk this week.
“Thanks for the pictures. It’s all about the pictures,” shuttle pilot Dominic “Tony” Antonelli told the station crew.
“The perfect lighting, and you guys look marvelous,” replied Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
The photo shoot lasted just a few minutes against a breathtaking backdrop of the Portuguese coast, Spain, France and northern Italy.
Ham was struck by the space station’s beauty as he guided Atlantis in. “You are brilliantly glowing. It’s an absolutely stunning view,” he said.
Noguchi’s greeting to Atlantis was more to the point. “Yee-haw!” he shouted.
Ham and his crew will spend a week at the orbiting science complex, installing a new Russian compartment and replacing six batteries. Three spacewalks are planned, beginning Monday. If the cable repair is approved, it would be added to the second spacewalk on Wednesday or the third on Friday.
A cable at the end of Atlantis’ inspection boom is caught on a protruding sensor that’s part of a camera system. The problem prevented the astronauts from thoroughly checking the left wing and some other areas of the shuttle Saturday.
Flight director Mike Sarafin said he may ask the astronauts to look at some of the missed sections later in the week, using the robot arm.
Engineers don’t know how the cable became snagged. Photos taken before Friday’s liftoff show it was in the right position.
A piece of space junk, meanwhile, harmlessly passed 10 miles from the shuttle and station an hour after Sunday morning’s docking.
Flight controllers had been monitoring the unidentified object for a few days and determined Saturday night that there was no need for the space station to move out of the way.
Discovery is due at the space station in September, followed by Endeavour in November. NASA will need approval from the White House if Atlantis is to return in June 2011.
The Obama administration wants NASA out of the low-Earth orbit business and focused instead on asteroid and Mars expeditions. American astronauts will hitch rides to the space station on Russian rockets until U.S. private companies can pick up the slack.