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Shuttle Discovery closes in on space station

THE space shuttle Discovery closed in on the International Space Station yesterday while astronauts scoured the ship's heat shield for signs of damage from Sunday's launch.

The shuttle was due to arrive at the orbital outpost today at 5:13 pm EDT (2113 GMT) for an abbreviated eight-day stay. The seven-man crew includes Japan's Koichi Wakata, a veteran of two previous flights who will become the first Japanese astronaut to live aboard the station.

The crew's main job is to deliver and install a pair of solar wing panels that will bring the station up to full power after more than a decade of construction. That will pave the way for the station's resident crew to double from three to six people as early as May.

The Discovery astronauts spent their first full day in orbit delicately panning lasers and cameras over their ship's wings and nose to check for damage from debris strikes from liftoff. The inspection is a routine part of shuttle missions since NASA resumed flying after the 2003 Columbia accident.

Columbia broke apart, killing its seven crew members, as it flew through the atmosphere for landing. Investigators determined the ship had been damaged by a piece of falling foam insulation during launch, which allowed superheated gases to blast inside its wing as Columbia soared over Texas.


Scrutiny of Discovery's ceramic belly tiles will come on Friday. Using telephoto lenses and high-speed digital cameras, the space station crew plans to photograph Discovery's underside while shuttle commander Lee Archambault slowly flips the ship before gliding into its parking spot as the two spacecraft soar 225 miles (360 km) above Earth.

NASA said a 3.9-inch (10 cm) piece of space debris would not force the space station to make an evasive maneuver, after expressing earlier concerns that it could pose a threat.

The debris, a fragment from a defunct Russian military navigation satellite called Cosmos 1275, will pass well beyond the station. The chances of it being a concern for flight directors is less than 1 in 100,000, said Paul Dye, NASA's lead space shuttle flight director for the mission.

Last week, NASA ordered the station crew to seek shelter briefly in their Soyuz emergency spacecraft while another piece of debris passed by. In that case, the threat notification came too late to adjust the station's orbit.

The only real problem on board Discovery, Dye said, is a malfunctioning exercise bike. Even if the stationary bike can't be fixed, "We've got some rubber bungee-type equipment that they can use," Dye said. "Folks will still be able to get some exercise."

The shuttle is expected to remain at the station for eight days for assembly and maintenance work, a day less than originally planned. After a hydrogen leak delayed Discovery's liftoff last week, NASA cut the mission back from 14 to 13 days to ensure the shuttle will depart before the station's new crew -- and space tourist Charles Simonyi -- arrives next week.


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