(Updates throughout, adds quotes)
By Jeff Franks
HOUSTON, Oct 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle Discovery linked up with the International Space Station on Thursday on a mission to prepare the orbital outpost for new European and Japanese laboratories.
With shuttle commander Pamela Melroy at the controls, Discovery eased up to the station and latched onto a docking port at 8:40 a.m. EDT (1240 GMT).
In a U.S. naval tradition adopted on the station, commander Peggy Whitson rang a ship’s bell in welcome.
"Discovery arriving," she said, as the ships soared 212 miles (340 km) above the Pacific Ocean.
Two hours later, Melroy and the Discovery astronauts floated into the welcoming embrace of Whitson and the station crew. Whitson hugged each astronaut as they scrambled inside the complex, which will host the 10 men and women for the next week and a half.
"Everybody here is just ecstatic," said Discovery’s lead spacewalker Scott Parazynski. "We’re so fired up to be here."
Whitson is the first female station commander and Melroy the second woman to command a shuttle, following now-retired astronaut Eileen Collins.
The docking ended a two-day pursuit by Discovery after Tuesday’s launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
An ice buildup on Discovery’s fuel tank caused some last-minute analysis prior to launch and NASA studied photographs to make sure no lingering ice chunks hit the shuttle’s heat shield during liftoff.
Discovery transported the Italian-built Harmony module, a 24-foot (seven-metre) cylinder that will be installed on the space station to serve as the berthing port for Europe’s Columbus and Japan’s Kibo modules.
Columbus is scheduled for transport to the $100 billion space station on Dec. 6 aboard the shuttle Atlantis, followed by the multi-piece Kibo starting early in 2008.
RELOCATE POWER UNIT
The other main task for the shuttle crew during the current mission is to relocate an 18-tonne solar power unit to a new place on the station’s backbone. That work will take four spacewalks to complete. A fifth is planned to test a technique for repairing the shuttle’s heat shield, in case of damage during liftoff.
On Wednesday, NASA said Discovery’s wing and nose heat shields looked to be in good shape after a lengthy inspection with sensors on a remotely maneuvered robot arm.
Before docking, Discovery, the sun glinting off the tin-can-shaped Harmony in its cargo bay, performed a slow backflip 600 feet (182 metres) from the station so the station crew could snap photographs of the heat-resistant tiles on the ship’s belly.
NASA engineers will pore over photos and data collected from Wednesday’s scan to check more closely for any damage before clearing the shuttle for landing on Nov. 6.
Safety inspections have become routine shuttle procedure since Columbia broke apart during the fiery descent to Earth in 2003. Investigators blamed the accident on a hole in the wing heat shield caused by launch debris.
Video from Tuesday’s launch showed several breakaway fragments of fuel tank insulation foam, but none are believed to have damaged the fragile shield.
The U.S. space agency is pressing to finish space station construction before a 2010 deadline to retire the shuttle fleet.
(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral)