- Associated Press - Sunday, July 10, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Atlantis closed in Sunday for one last docking with the International Space Station, an emotional milestone for this last journey by a NASA shuttle.

Excitement grew throughout the morning _ in orbit and at Mission Control _ as the miles melted between the two spacecraft with every circling of Earth. Every landmark, or rather spacemark, of this final two-week shuttle mission is being savored; Friday’s flawless liftoff set the tone.

“We’ll see you guys in a little bit,” Atlantis commander Christopher Ferguson radioed to the six station inhabitants from 5 1/2 miles out Sunday morning. “We’ve got your docking light on nice and bright.”

“We’re ready for you,” replied station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr.

Atlantis is delivering more than 4 tons of food, clothes and other space station provisions _ an entire year’s worth, in fact, to keep the complex going in the looming post-shuttle era.

This will be the 46th docking by a space shuttle to a space station.

Nine of those were to Russia’s Mir station back in the mid-1990s. The U.S. and Russia built on that sometimes precarious experience to create, along with a dozen other nations, the world’s largest spacecraft ever: the permanently inhabited, finally completed, 12 1/2-year-old International Space Station.

Ferguson was at the controls as Atlantis drew closer, leading the smallest astronaut crew in decades.

Only four are flying aboard Atlantis, as NASA kept the crew to a minimum in case of an emergency. In the unlikely event that Atlantis was seriously damaged, the shuttle astronauts would need to move into the space station for months and rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to get back home. A shuttle always was on standby before for a possible rescue, but that’s no longer feasible with Discovery and Endeavour officially retired now.

Two days into this historic voyage _ the 135th in 30 years of shuttle flight _ Atlantis was said by NASA to be sailing smoothly, free of significant damage.

As a safeguard, Atlantis was going to perform the usual backflip for the space station cameras, before the 230-mile-high linkup. The station astronauts are equipped with powerful zoom lenses to photograph all sides of the shuttle. Experts on the ground will scrutinize the digital images for any signs of damage that might have come from fuel-tank foam, ice or other launch debris.

NASA, meanwhile, continued to bask in the afterglow of Friday’s liftoff. As part of Sunday morning’s mail to Atlantis, Mission Control sent up a 4-inch image of a shuttle made entirely of exclamation points.

Flight controllers joked that the city of Philadelphia _ Ferguson’s hometown _ is arranging for Lincoln Financial Field to cut its turf in the shape of the crew’s mission patch.

“The mayor was quoted as saying, ‘As long as the NFL lockout is still ongoing and the Eagles aren’t playing, we might as well use the stadium for something,’” controllers wrote in the so-called news break.

Atlantis and its crew will spend more than a week at the orbiting complex. The mission currently is scheduled to last 12 days, but NASA likely will add a 13th day to give the astronauts extra time to complete all their chores.

NASA is getting out of the launching-to-orbit business, giving the three remaining shuttles to museums, so it can start working on human trips to asteroids and Mars. Private U.S. companies will pick up the more mundane job of space station delivery runs and, still several years out, astronaut ferry flights.

___

Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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