The crew aboard the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour successfully docked with the International Space Station late Sunday - the 27th shuttle mission to the 10-year-old space laboratory. VOA's Victor Beattie reports that the shuttle mission is designed to expand and improve the space station to allow the permanent crew to double in size by the middle of next year.
The linkup occurred more than 340 kilometers above the earth over northern India near the Chinese border and unites 10 American and Russian astronauts and cosmonauts for nearly two weeks as crewmembers are exchanged, spacewalks performed and the space station remodeling gets underway.
The docking ended a two-day chase by Endeavour that started with a launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Space communicator Jim Dutton congratulated shuttle commander Chris Ferguson on a flawless docking maneuver.
"The team down here on planet earth wants to compliment you on a on well-done, very nicely done, rendezvous and docking," said Jim Dutton. "It's great to see Endeavour docking with the International Space Station."
As shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson approached the space station, he steered the spacecraft through a slow back flip, exposing the shuttle's heat shield to the space station crew who aimed cameras at the shuttle's underside and transmitted the data back to Mission Control in Houston, Texas.
At a post-docking news conference at Mission Control, deputy shuttle program director LeRoy Cain said debris on the launch pad was found after liftoff, raising concerns about damage to the shuttle's heat shield.
"The ops [operations] teams were able to get a good look at that and we have determined that all of our thermal protection system blankets are intact in that area," said LeRoy Cain. "So we're continuing to look at what that debris source might have been."
Cain says ice may have fallen from the shuttle on liftoff and that data suggest the debris did not strike Endeavour. The U.S. space agency, NASA, wants to avoid a repeat of the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 in which the orbiter disintegrated while reentering the earth's atmosphere because its heat shield was damaged by falling debris during liftoff.
About 75 minutes after docking with the International Space Station, the hatches to both spacecraft were opened and the crews greeted each other.
Moments later, space station commander Mike Fincke officially welcomed Commander Ferguson and the Endeavour crew.
"Welcome Endeavour! You guys look awesome," said Mike Fincke. "It was a beautiful approach, a beautiful docking. We're really glad you're here. We understand that this house [space station] is in need of an extreme makeover and that you're the crew to do it. We think we've got everything ready for you. We're really glad to see you. Welcome! Welcome everybody! Welcome to space."
"Hey! We figured we'd go for a 10-year anniversary party for the space station," said Chris Ferguson. "So that's what we showed up for. We're looking forward to working on your house and making it look a little bit better when we're done."
The cargo Endeavour brings to the space station includes a new kitchen, bathroom, water recycler and sleeping quarters. Once in place, the living quarters and support systems will allow the crew size to double from three to six full-time residents by May.
Three of Endeavour's astronauts plan four spacewalks to clean and lubricate a gearing mechanism that rotates the station's solar panels that generate electricity. The first spacewalk is scheduled for Tuesday.
Endeavour astronaut Sandy Magnus is also beginning her long stay aboard the space station, replacing astronaut Greg Chamitoff who will return with the Endeavour crew, ending a six-month residence.