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US: Endeavour astronauts board ISS

17 Nov 2008 1:23 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov 16 AFP - Astronauts aboard space shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station (ISS) opened a hatch between their two vessels and met amid handshakes and hugs 360km above the South Pacific Ocean.

The hatch sprung open at 7.16 pm on Sunday (11.16 AEDT), two hours after Endeavour docked at the ISS and almost 48 hours into its 15-day mission to expand the living quarters of the orbiting space station.

"Welcome Endeavour ... we understand that this house is in need of an extreme makeover and that you are the crew to do it. We're really glad to see you ... Welcome to space," ISS commander Mike Fincke told the seven arriving Endeavour astronauts in a welcoming ceremony.

Before the two crafts linked up, the Endeavour, piloted by commander Chris Ferguson, performed a backflip so astronauts aboard the station could photograph its heat shield for closer analysis.

On Saturday, crew members used the shuttle's robotic arm and an attached boom extension to check the spacecraft's underside, nose cap and leading edges of the wings as well as hard to reach surfaces.

The five-hour examination revealed that a 30cm by 45cm piece of thermal blanket on the rear top of the orbiter apparently ripped off during launch, according to NASA engineers back on Earth who viewed the images sent by the shuttle.

The gap in the heat shield, however, was considered "of no great concern since it is not an area that experiences high heat during re-entry", NASA said in a statement.

The task of the Endeavour will be to repair the station's power-generating solar arrays and expand its living quarters to accommodate bigger crews.

"This mission is all about home improvement," Ferguson said this week during launch preparations. "Home improvement inside and outside the station."

It will be the most extreme home makeover ever attempted by NASA astronauts. The additions will include two new sleeping quarters, exercise equipment,a second toilet, two new ovens to heat food, a refrigerator for food and drinks, a freezer and an oven for scientific experiments.

Endeavour is carrying 14.5 tonnes of material and equipment to the Italian module Leonardo, allowing for the ISS crew to expand from three to six in 2009.

As one NASA expert described earlier this week, the upgrades will effectively turn the ISS into "a five-bedroom two-bath house with a kitchen, and support six residents on a continuing basis".

The astronauts also will be installing a system that can turn urine back into drinking water. TheUS250 million ($A390.14 million) upgrade will allowenough recycling for a six-person ISS crew to sharply reduce the amount ofwater that has to be flown up from Earth.

Four planned spacewalks during the mission will focus on servicing the station's solar wings, mainly the large joints that allow the apparatus to rotate to track the sun.

The first spacewalk begins on the fifth day of the mission.

The 27th shuttle flight to the orbiting space station and the fourth and final shuttle mission for 2008 consists of a crew of five men and two women, all Americans.

While docked to the ISS, the Endeavour astronauts and the three-man ISS crew will mark the 10th anniversary of the ISS, a multi-billion-dollar collaborative effort between the space agencies of Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Endeavour's crew includes commander Ferguson, 47, co-pilot Eric Boe, 44, and five other mission specialists including Sandra Magnus, 44.

She will replace compatriot Greg Chamitoff as ISS Expedition 18 flight engineer. Chamitoff is scheduled to return to Earth on Endeavour in late November while Magnus is to stay on through February 2009.

Endeavour's mission is scheduled to end November 29, though NASA has said the flight could well be extended a day.

AFP ss =0A