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Space shuttle crew boards station for 8-day visit

THE US space shuttle Discovery arrived at the International Space Station yesterday to deliver its final pair of solar wing panels and the first Japanese astronaut to live aboard the station.

After a two-day journey to catch up to the station, commander Lee Archambault slipped Discovery into a berth at the orbital outpost at 5:19 pm EDT (2119 GMT), as the two ships soared 220 miles (354 km) over western Australia.

"Welcome to the space station, Discovery. We're glad you're here," station commander Mike Fincke radioed to the crew.

About two hours later, the seven Discovery astronauts floated through a connecting tunnel and into the station to greet their hosts and have a look around. The station crew has not had visitors since the shuttle Endeavour's mission in November.

"We've been waiting for you guys for a while," Fincke said. "Welcome aboard."

The shuttle crew includes two-time space flier Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Wakata will be taking over as a space station flight engineer from NASA's Sandra Magnus, who has been in orbit since November and is due to ride back to Earth aboard Discovery.

The shuttle blasted off on Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a 13-day mission.

Initial inspections of the shuttle showed no obvious launch damage. That has been an ongoing concern since a piece of falling debris hit shuttle Columbia during launch in 2003, breaching its heat shield and triggering its destruction 16 days later as it flew toward Florida for landing.

Seven astronauts died in the accident.

As Discovery approached the station, Fincke and Magnus snapped about 300 pictures of the heat-resistant ceramic tiles on the ship's belly. The images will be relayed to engineers on the ground so they can look for any damage.

The crew on Monday inspected Discovery's wings and nose cap with a laser scanner mounted on the shuttle's robot arm.


The astronauts have a long list of tasks to complete in less time than NASA originally hoped. The mission had to be shortened by a day when Discovery missed its first launch date due to a fuel leak.

The shuttle needs to leave the station before a Russian Soyuz capsule arrives next week with replacements for Fincke and flight engineer Yury Lonchakov.

Topping the crews' to-do list is the installation of a US$300 million, 16-tonne metal girder that contains the last pair of the station's solar power wing panels. Once they are installed, the station should be able to generate 124 kilowatts of electricity -- about enough to power 42 average US homes.

The shuttle also carries a new distiller for the station's urine recycler, which is designed to provide water for the crew and is a key component for supporting an expanded six-person team. Three people now live on board full-time, but officials plan to double that number as early as May.

NASA developed the water purification system that recycles crew members' urine as well as condensate from the air into drinking water. The device was delivered by the last shuttle crew in November, but broke down shortly thereafter.

Transferring water to the station will end in 2010 when the shuttle fleet is retired for safety and cost reasons. NASA is developing a new capsule-style spaceship that can, unlike the shuttle, fly to the moon and travel to and from the station.

The first of three spacewalks to hook up the new solar wing panels and get the station ready for an expanded crew is scheduled for Thursday. The shuttle is due back at the Kennedy Space Center on March 28.


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