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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 July 2006, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
Discovery docks after 'backflip'
ISS crew members photographed Discovery's belly

The space shuttle Discovery has docked with the International Space Station (ISS) after a two-day trip from Earth.

It arrived at the orbital outpost at 1052 EDT (1452 GMT), and the hatches between the two craft were opened around 100 minutes later.

Discovery performed a "backflip" before docking so the ISS crew could inspect the ceramic tiles on its underbelly.

These tiles form part of the shuttle's heat shield, vital for protecting the craft on its fiery descent to Earth.

Space shuttle (Image: BBC)
Mission known as STS-121
Discovery's 32nd flight
18th orbiter flight to ISS
Lift-off: 1438 EDT, 4 July
Location: Kennedy Space Center, Launch Pad 39B
Objective: To test new safety equipment and procedures
Payload: Cargo bay has 12.75t of equipment and supplies
Crew: Lindsey, Kelly, Fossum, Nowak, Wilson, Sellers, Reiter

Discovery's seven astronauts - five men and two women - were greeted with hugs and smiles by the ISS crew Pavel Vinogradov and Jeffrey Williams as they entered the space station.

Before docking, Commander Steve Lindsey took manual control of Discovery about 300m (1,000ft) from the ISS.

He performed the flip about 180m (600ft) below the station, so that Vinogradov and Williams could take pictures of its belly.

The nine-minute, 360-degree manoeuvre is among several measures the US space agency (Nasa) has taken to increase safety since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

Live pictures of the docking sequence were broadcast around the world as it began about 350km (220 miles) above Earth, each craft travelling at about at 28,200km/h (17,500 mph).

As the shuttle's jets cut off and space station latches automatically hooked onto the orbiter, a Nasa mission control commentator - at the Johnson Space Center in Texas - said: "Contact confirmed."

Delivering the payload

Discovery is making the 115th flight of the American shuttle programme.

Thomas Reiter (AP)
German Thomas Reiter will stay at the ISS for six months

The spacecraft will unload almost 13 tonnes of equipment and supplies to the space station.

One of the shuttle's crew members, Thomas Reiter from Germany, will also stay on at the ISS for a six-month mission, along with Vinogradov, a Russian, and Williams, an American.

This will make Reiter the first European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut to get an extended stay on the platform.

Fellow Discovery crew members Mike Fossum and British-born Piers Sellers plan to carry out two or three space walks during their visit to the ISS.

At least one of these will be devoted to testing techniques that could be used to repair small defects on the shuttle's surface tiles.

Discovery is expected to spend some eight days docked with the space station, before beginning the return journey to Earth.

It is currently scheduled to return to the Kennedy Space Center on 16 July.

Extensive checks

On Wednesday, Nasa flight director John Shannon said photographs of the shuttle taken by the crew had found no apparent damage.

Some unusual streaks on the right wing were thought to be bird droppings.

"Overall the tank performance was really outstanding," said Mr Shannon. "It has just been a great day in space for the crew and the vehicle."

Nasa officials hope the clean bill of health so far indicates they have solved the problem of falling foam from shuttle fuel tanks - the problem that caused the Columbia disaster in 2003.

A suitcase-sized chunk of insulation material broke away from Columbia's external tank on lift-off and punched a hole in the vehicle's left wing.

This allowed superheated gases to get inside the orbiter's structure, causing it to tear apart as it made its descent towards Earth.

Some foam was also seen to break away from Discovery's tank during Tuesday's launch but Nasa officials do not believe it was of sufficient size, or moving at sufficient speed, to damage the orbiter.


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