CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - After receiving a clean bill of health, space shuttle Discovery early Monday raced toward a rendezvous with the international space station, ready to deliver a new crew member and a 2-ton addition to the space lab.
U.S. astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams was to get a first look at her home for the next six months after Discovery docks at the space station, which is slated for Monday afternoon. She will replace German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency.
"I think we're off to a really good start," Discovery commander Mark Polansky told Mission Control Sunday night as his crew wrapped up a meticulous inspection of the shuttle, looking for any possible damage from liftoff. "Really looking forward to some real exciting days ahead."
Discovery will get another inspection about an hour before docking, when Polansky manually steers the shuttle's nose up and slowly flips the spacecraft over so the space station's crew can photograph its belly for damage. The safety procedure was implemented after the Columbia accident in 2003.
The space shuttle's heat shield looks to be in good health so far, NASA managers said Sunday night, although it will be at least two days before engineers can rule out any possible damage from the program's first night launch in four years.
As expected, small pieces of foam debris and ice fell off Discovery's external fuel tank during Saturday night's launch, but they didn't appear to strike the shuttle - or if they did it was too late in ascent to cause serious damage, said deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team.
"The team sees nothing of concern at this time," Shannon said.
NASA engineers were studying four low-momentum readings from sensors on the leading edge of the shuttle's wing about two minutes after liftoff.
"I don't know if they're strikes. In the past, there's a lot of folks who think it's just a shock wave passing over ... or there's some settling," Shannon said. "We've seen exactly the same thing on the last couple of flights. We don't know exactly what's happening."
Engineers were working on problems with a system that cools the shuttle's radiators, a predicament that surfaced during Discovery's last flight in July. They also focused on a latching mechanism on the shuttle's robotic arm that would not operate automatically. Neither was expected to affect the flight.
The space shuttle also was dropping off an $11 million addition which will be installed during the first spacewalk on Tuesday, and six other astronauts who unlike Williams will stay only seven days at the space station. Two other spacewalks are scheduled to rewire the space lab's electrical grid from a temporary to a permanent power system.
The docking will occur with both spacecrafts traveling about 17,500 mph, about 220 miles above Earth.
"We may make it look easy, but in fact it's very difficult," Shannon said. "Everything in spaceflight is tough, but we try to make it look easy."