CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – As the miles melted between Atlantis and the International Space Station, the emotions grew – in orbit and on the ground.
At Mission Control on Sunday, lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho declared “this is it” as he gave the OK for the final docking in space shuttle history.
About 240 miles above the Pacific, the station’s naval bell chimed a salute – one of many landmarks of this final two-week shuttle mission that are being savored one by one.
“Atlantis arriving,” called out space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. “Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time.”
“And it’s great to be here,” replied shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson.
Cries of joy and laughter filled the connected vessels once the hatches swung open and the two crews – 10 space fliers altogether representing three countries – exchanged hugs, handshakes and kisses on the cheek.
Atlantis, carrying a year’s worth of supplies, is being retired after this flight, the last of the 30-year shuttle program.
“I won’t say that I got close to welling up in the eyes, but I will say that it was a powerful moment for me,” Alibaruho later told reporters. Alibaruho said the moment was also powerful for the 10 people in space for the docking: six Americans, three Russians and one Japanese.
A computer failure aboard Atlantis took away some of the redundancy desired for the rendezvous but did not hamper the operation.
Within a few hours, though, news came that NASA was monitoring a piece of space junk that could come dangerously close to the orbiting shuttle-station complex Tuesday – in the middle of a spacewalk.
Mission management team Chairman LeRoy Cain stressed it was still too soon to know whether the unidentified object would truly pose a threat, and that a decision would be made today whether to move the linked spacecraft out of harm’s way. The size of the object was not immediately known.
This was the 46th docking by a space shuttle to a space station.
Nine of those were to Mir in the 1990s, with Atlantis making the very first. The U.S. and Russia built on that sometimes precarious experience to create, along with a dozen other nations, the world’s largest spacecraft ever: the permanently inhabited, finally completed, 121/2-year-old International Space Station.
This time, Atlantis is delivering more than 5 tons of food, clothes and other space station provisions – a year’s worth to keep the complex going in the looming post-shuttle era.
The shuttle astronauts quickly handed over a bag of groceries loaded with fresh fruit and promised the station residents some extra jars of peanut butter.
“Outstanding,” inhabitant Michael Fossum said.
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