The Earth glows for shuttle Atlantis. The 26-year-old orbiter's first day performance was flawless. Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim worked ahead of schedule as well. Photo Credit/NASA TV
The Atlantis astronauts raced toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station on Saturday, as they scanned the heat shielding on the wings and nose cap of their spacecraft for debris impact damage from their lift off.
The docking of the two spacecraft is scheduled for Sunday at 11:07 a.m., EDT.
The 12-day, STS 135 mission lifted off on NASA's final shuttle program flight on Friday, with no evidence of major debris loss in imagery from tracking cameras or live video broadcast from a camera on the shuttle's external tank. Though 26, Atlantis was circling the Earth like a yearling -- virtually trouble-free.
“The vehicle is extremely clean,” LeRoy Cain, chairman of the NASA Mission Management Team, told a news briefing late Saturday. “We’ve been determined to finish the program strong . We could not be happier with the way we started the mission.”
Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim are carrying more than four tons of food, spare parts and research equipment to the orbiting science laboratory. The cargo is intended to fortify the station for six person crew operations through 2012, as NASA -- the project's managing partner -- transitions to still emerging U. S. commercial re-supply services.
"It's a pleasure watching you guys work today," NASA Mission Control shuttle communicator Steve Robinson told the astronauts as they carefully scanned the heat shielding with the camera and laser-tipped Orbiter Boom Sensor System. Video of the survey was transmitted to imagery assessment experts in Mission Control. There were no obvious signs of damage, and the assessment could be finished over the weekend.
Though the smallest crew to fly a shuttle mission in 28 years, the Atlantis "final four" raced nearly 90 minutes ahead of schedule on their first full day in orbit and skipped lunch to lower the risk of falling behind.
"It's a pleasure to be up here again," said Magnus, who shared the four hour damage survey task with Ferguson and Hurley.
Atlantis managed to depart the Kennedy Space Center on NASA's first launch attempt, overcoming a gloomy weather forecast and a momentary clearance issue with the launch pad gaseous oxygen vent arm.
The timely lift off afforded Atlantis a 23 hour fuel cell electrical power margin by Saturday, almost enough for a hoped for one-day extension of the STS-135 mission.
"I think we will probably get there," said NASA lead shuttle flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho, who forecast a decision on the issue by Monday.
The shuttle's rendezvous with the station will provide the last major piece of the post-launch heat shield damage assessment. As Ferguson steers Atlantis toward the station from below, he will stop at a separation of 600 feet and slowly maneuver the 260,000 pound orbiter through a back flip.
Aboard the station, three of the six member U. S., Russian and Japanese crew will be poised at window with cameras, ready to snap several hundred close up photos of the shuttle's underside heat shielding. The electronic imagery will be transmitted quickly to Mission Control for analysis.
On Monday, the shuttle crew will temporarily move the 21-foot Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, with the supply cache, from the payload bay of Atlantis to the station's Harmony module, setting the stage for a flurry of cargo transfer.
The mission' only spacewalk, which has been assigned to station astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan, is scheduled for Tuesday.
The spacewalkers will transfer a satellite refueling experiment from Atlantis to the station. They'll also place a failed station thermal control system cooling pump aboard Atlantis for return to Earth.