The U.S. space shuttle Discovery has docked with the International Space Station, but it will be the last time a shuttle visits the outpost for a while. The space agency NASA is grounding the shuttle fleet because a large piece of insulating foam broke off Discovery's external fuel tank during Tuesday's launch, raising fear that the problem that doomed the orbiter Columbia in 2003 could happen again.
Discovery eased very up under the space station and closed in on its target very slowly.
Shuttle pilot Jim Kelly confirmed the connection to mission control in Houston.
"Houston, Alpha-Discovery, we have contact and capture. The shuttle is in free drift."
The shuttle's seven astronauts will spend eight days with the station's two-man crew resupplying the space laboratory and hauling out two-and-a-half years worth of accumulated trash.
It has been that long since a shuttle has connected to the station because of the flight moratorium after Columbia disintegrated in orbit. Now, in a major setback to America's manned flight program, NASA has grounded all shuttle flights again.
It acted after launch photographs showed that a sizable chunk of hard insulating foam fell away from Discovery's external fuel tank during lift off on Tuesday. This was the very problem NASA spent two years and one billion dollars to correct. It was such a piece of foam that punctured a hole in Colombia's wing upon liftoff, causing it to burn up in the searing heat of re-entry and killing all seven astronauts on board.
Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons says the debris in the latest launch does not seem to have damaged Discovery in any way, but he and other mission managers put shuttle launches on hold so engineers can pursue further fixes.
"Until we're ready, we won't go fly again," he said. "Now, I don't know when that might be. So, I'll just state that right up front. We're just in the beginning of this process of understanding. This is a test flight."
High-resolution space station cameras photographed Discovery's underside as it neared the outpost to look at a pit believed to have been made by debris in a protective surface tile during Tuesday's launch. The images should give engineers a closer look at any potential damage, according to deputy shuttle manager Wayne Hale.
"Are we concerned about this? We are treating it very seriously," said Mr. Hale. "Are we losing any sleep over it? Not yet."
Mr. Hale says NASA officials will spend the next few days coming up with a plan either to have the astronauts try to repair the heat tiles or to return to Earth on schedule August seventh with things the way they are.