Discovery does pirouette, then docks to space station
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 28, 2005
Commander Eileen Collins guided the space shuttle Discovery to a picture-perfect docking with the international space station today, a major milestone in a mission now overshadowed by a crisis of confidence in NASA after the grounding of the shuttle fleet Wednesday.
"We have contact and capture," pilot James Kelly radioed as the shuttle's docking port gently contacted its counterpart on the front of the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny. After damping out post-docking oscillations, powerful latches locked the two spacecraft together.
One orbit later, at 8:50 a.m., a final hatch between Discovery and the station was cranked open and the shuttle crew floated into the Destiny module, welcomed aboard by station commander Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips. Following naval tradition, Phillips rang a ship's bell to signal the shuttle crew's arrival.
Krikalev passed out bread and salt, a traditional Russian gift for visitors, before giving his guests a safety briefing to familiarize them with evacuation routes and emergency procedures. Later today, Kelly and Lawrence, assisted by Phillips, will use the station's robot arm to pluck Discovery's orbiter boom sensor system - OBSS - out of the shuttle's cargo bay so it can be handed off to the shuttle's robot arm.
The OBSS was used Wednesday to inspect Discovery's nose cap and wing leading edge panels for signs of impact damage. The astronauts may use it for additional inspections later in the mission. But because of clearance issues with the shuttle now docked to the station, the lab's Canadian-built robot arm was required to remove it from the shuttle's cargo bay.
"We're on the space station right now, it looks absolutely fantastic," Collins radioed. "We're looking forward to several days of a lot of hard work getting the station in the best shape we can get it in."
Today's docking was the first since a linkup by the shuttle Endeavour in November 2002, the flight before Columbia blasted off on its final voyage Jan. 16, 2003.
Columbia was destroyed during re-entry 16 days later, victim of a launch-day external tank foam strike that blasted a hole in its left wing. NASA spent two-and-a-half years recovering from the disaster, focusing on fixing the external tank to make sure large pieces of foam insulation would not break off during launch.
But during Discovery's launching Tuesday, large pieces of potentially catastrophic foam broke away, graphically proving NASA and its contractor, Lockheed Martin, had failed to meet the No. 1 recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
It was a devastating blow to NASA, a major setback in the agency's plans to resume space station assembly. With the shuttle fleet now grounded indefinitely, some agency insiders worry the program is in danger of termination.
But NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, in an interview with CBS News earlier today, said shuttle flights will resume when the agency fixes the foam problem, however long that might take.
"Obviously, we didn't do as well as we needed to and we're not going to fly again until we're even more certain we have this problem fixed," he said. "We intend at this point to fix the foam problem and fly again as soon as we can when we are certain we've got it this time."
But he left little doubt NASA still plans to retire the shuttle fleet by 2010 as the agency transitions to a replacement rocket system intended to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit and eventually on to the moon.
"Our planning horizon at this point, per the president's direction, is to retire in 2010 at which time we believe the international space station will be complete and it will be time for the us to move on to a new human-rated system and new voyages of discovery to the moon."
Despite the concern about the shuttle program's immediate future, Discovery's crew has pressed ahead with a near flawless mission, executing a trouble-free rendezvous and docking early today.
During final approach, with the shuttle flying nose forward a few hundred feet directly below the space station, Collins manually pitched the nose up in a spectacular 360-degree maneuver that allowed Krikalev and Phillips to photograph Discovery's underbelly.
While it will take photo analysts time to fully evaluate the pictures, "neither of us saw anything alarming," Phillips radioed mission control.
"They showed us some of the shots of the orbiter and from what we could tell, it looks like it's in great shape," Collins radioed later from the station.
Asked if he was confident Discovery's thermal protection system is healthy enough for a normal re-entry Aug. 7, Griffin told CBS News "we're not 100 percent sure at this point, no, but we have looked at the data from the wing leading edge impact sensors and we have not seen any evidence of an actual strike."
"Our video footage, it's very clear that that large piece of foam missed Discovery," he said. "We continue to examine the data but at this point, we think Discovery is a clean bird."
See the Status Center for full play-by-play coverage.