SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) â€” Space shuttle Atlantis cruised to a flawless and on-time meeting with the orbiting international space station early Sunday, docking with the vacant outpost some 200 miles above the Ukraine.
The rendezvous ended a two-day chase to catch the ailing outpost, which needs new batteries, some minor repairs and a boost back to a higher orbit.
Commander James Halsell Jr. guided Atlantis to the perfect linkup at 12:31 a.m. EDT, with both spacecraft orbiting at 17,500 mph.
``A little handshaking and backslapping going on back here, and this is just the first of several exciting days,'' Halsell told Mission Control after he parked Atlantis next to the space station.
Though Halsell and his six crewmates are the first visitors to the space station in a year, NASA had not planned on sending a shuttle crew there until a critical Russian service module was in place.
But Russian financial problems delayed the module's arrival until at least July, so Atlantis was dispatched to replace dying batteries aboard the station and to boost its drooping orbit. Especially heavy solar activity has caused the station to drop 1 1/2 miles per week.
To prepare for the astronauts' arrival, American and Russian flight controllers began raising the temperature and cleansing the fetid air inside the space station. The crew won't enter the station until Monday night; first up are some exterior repairs Sunday night by spacewalking astronauts James Voss and Jeffrey Williams.
Williams and Voss must lock down a crane which was installed incorrectly during NASA's last visit to the space station. Then they'll attach another crane and replace a broken antenna.
The astronauts will spend the rest of the week working inside the 1 1/2 -year-old space station, using ear plugs to block perpetual noise from fans on the Russian side.
Four of six electricity-producing batteries must be replaced, as well as all the fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. They'll also deliver hundreds of supplies for future crews, including tools, exercise equipment, clothing, bungee cords and even a small model of the space station for TV interviews.
Three members of Atlantis' crew have an especially vested interest in doing the job right. Voss, Susan Helms and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev will call the space station home next year.