June 1, 2008 / 12:40 AM / 11 years ago

Shuttle Discovery closes in on space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla./HOUSTON (Reuters) - Space shuttle Discovery closed in on the International Space Station on Sunday to deliver a Japanese research laboratory, a new crew member and a repair kit for the outpost’s faulty toilet.

Space Shuttle Discovery Commander Mark Kelly (L) and Pilot Kenneth Ham (R) eat shortly after launch on the mid deck of the orbiter in this image from NASA TV video released June 1, 2008. REUTERS/NASA TV

The spaceship was scheduled to arrive at the station shortly before 2 p.m. EDT on Monday. The shuttle and seven astronauts blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday for a two-week mission.

Because the Japanese laboratory in Discovery’s cargo bay is so large, it is flying without an inspection boom routinely used since the 2003 shuttle Columbia catastrophe to scour the ships for damage. The last shuttle to visit the space station left its boom behind for the Discovery crew to use and return to Earth.

The astronauts on Sunday performed a limited inspection of the ship’s wings using a camera on the end of the shuttle’s 50-foot robot arm.

The arm is only long enough for the crew to take images of the upper surfaces of the wings’ leading edges. A more thorough inspection is planned for later in the mission.

“We got some great imagery,” said lead shuttle flight director Matt Abbott. The data was being examined by experts on the ground.

The shuttle also lost about five pieces of insulating foam from its fuel tank during liftoff, the same problem that triggered the 2003 loss of Columbia in which seven astronauts died. Analysis of this problem was under way but NASA’s top space operations manager said there was no cause for concern.

“We don’t consider those a big deal to us,” said space flight chief Bill Gerstenmaier.

NASA spent more than $1 billion and two years fixing the tank to minimize debris and added a suite of inspection tools to check for damage after launch.

Because of the shuttle’s design, NASA says it will never completely solve the debris issue but it does expect any fly-away foam will be too small and occur too late during the climb to orbit to do any damage.

As the shuttle ascends, there is less atmosphere to transport debris and less energy for it to impact the shuttle.

The main goal of NASA’s 123rd space shuttle flight is to deliver Japan’s lab, named Kibo, which means “hope.”

The lab’s launch had been on hold for years due to delays in the construction of the station. NASA now has just two years to complete assembly in advance of the shuttle fleet’s retirement.

Seven construction missions and two resupply flights are pending. The U.S. space agency also plans a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope in October.

The Discovery crew is also carrying a new pump for the station’s sole toilet, which has been working erratically for the past week or so. Crew members have been manually flushing the commode with water four to five times a day to push urine through a system that separates liquids from gases.

The solid-waste system is not affected by the problem.

Editing by Bill Trott and Jackie Frank

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