Cape Canaveral, Fla. Space shuttle Atlantis' astronauts made the most important delivery of their lives Friday, bringing a $1.4 billion science laboratory to the international space station.
"Here we come," commander Kenneth Cockrell called out as he steered Atlantis to a flawless docking 220 miles above the South Pacific.
The laboratory, considered the centerpiece of the space station and thus named Destiny, will be installed by Cockrell and his crew today during the first of three planned spacewalks.
The hatches between shuttle Atlantis and space station Alpha swung open two hours after the linkup. But the antenna was obstructed, preventing the joyous gathering from being broadcast live.
Atlantis' five astronauts are the first visitors to the international space station in two months. Alpha commander Bill Shepherd and his two Russian crewmates moved into the space station at the beginning of November and welcomed another shuttle crew in December.
Shepherd and his crew accepted supplies and gifts from the shuttle astronauts, including a computer, cables for the laboratory, food, water, clothes and about 20 DVD movies. Among the presents from Shepherd's wife, Beth: a Valentine's Day card, a video of the puppy he gave her for Christmas and Snickers candy bars.
Unfortunately, three small electrical connectors needed for the laboratory installation also ended up aboard the station. The mistake was not noticed until the hatches between the craft were closed in preparation for Saturday's spacewalk. The doors had to be reopened, one side at a time, so Atlantis' astronauts could get back their connectors.
Today the shuttle crew will begin the excruciatingly delicate work of attaching the laboratory.
The astronauts must move a docking port, lift the laboratory from its tight berth in the shuttle payload bay and then attach the lab to the station. Two crew members will be outside to make all the connections.
"It's one of the more challenging and more difficult things that we've done," flight director Bob Castle said.
If Destiny, the most expensive and intricate piece of the space station, is damaged, NASA has no replacement. There was not enough money to build a spare. "We try not to think about the cost of the lab," Cockrell said. "It's certainly nothing that we could pay back if we ruined it."
Destiny 28 feet long and 14 feet in diameter holds 13 computers and all the systems necessary to run the entire space station. NASA expects to take over control of the station from the Russians in a month or two.
The lab also has a 20-inch porthole that is described as the finest optical-quality window ever built into a spacecraft. Earth observations are planned through the window, using cameras and telescopes.
Besides being the nerve center and the eventual hub for science research, Destiny will provide a fourth room to the space station and a quiet haven.
The two Russian segments were launched without adequate noise-reducing systems, forcing Shepherd and his crew to wear ear plugs when they sleep. Ear plugs will not be necessary inside Destiny, according to Boeing, the prime station contractor.