The biggest space party in history just got under way, as space shuttle Endeavour linked up with the International Space Station at 1:47 P.M. (Eastern Daylight Time), placing 13 people in orbit together—the most ever in one spot.
Endeavour's crew of seven met the newly expanded space station crew, which recently doubled in size to six, when the hatches between the two spacecraft opened two hours later.
Before the docking, the space shuttle performed a backflip so that ISS astronauts could photograph its underside heat shield from up close. Those images will be analyzed by mission managers on the ground, but a preliminary scan of the shielding yesterday did not reveal any worrisome damage, NASA said, despite the fact that the shuttle was struck by falling debris during ascent.
Thirteen people have been in space at once before, but they were spread out in different places. That happened in March, for instance, when a shuttle, the ISS, and a Russian Soyuz craft were all in flight simultaneously.
Above: space shuttle (white dot at center) approaching space station; below: crews greeting each other after docking. Courtesy NASA TV