Shuttle Atlantis arrives at space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Space shuttle Atlantis arrived at the International Space Station on Wednesday to deliver spare parts needed to keep the outpost operational after the shuttles’ retirement next year.

Atlantis, which blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on Monday, ended its two-day journey at 11:51 a.m. EST (1651 GMT). Commander Charlie Hobaugh gently eased the shuttle into a docking port on the station as the two ships sailed 220 miles above the coast of Australia.

The shuttle is scheduled to remain attached to the space station until next Wednesday.

“We’re looking forward to seeing you guys,” station flight engineer Jeff Williams radioed to the Atlantis crew.

Hatches between the shuttle and station were to remain shut for a couple of hours while leak checks and other inspections were under way.

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Atlantis is packed with 15 tonnes of pumps, gyroscopes, tanks and other gear that is too big to be carried by other spacecraft.

NASA plans to retire Atlantis and two sister ships, Discovery and Endeavour, next year after five more missions to complete construction of the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that began in 1998.

After the fleet’s retirement, Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships will keep the station stocked with food, fuel and supplies. Space station crewmembers will fly on Russian Soyuz capsules, a service that will cost the United States about $50 million per seat.

NASA is working on a new spacecraft to replace the 1970s-era space shuttle with the hope of returning U.S. astronauts to the moon sometime in the 2020s.

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The Atlantis crew plans to conduct three spacewalks to outfit the station with additional communications antennas, install science experiments and take care of some maintenance chores on the station’s robot arm.

Joining the six-man crew for the ride home will be space station flight engineer Nicole Stott, who has been in orbit for three months. She will be the last station astronaut to catch a ride on the shuttle.

Editing by Jim Loney and Sandra Maler