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Atlantis Docks At Space Station For Final Time

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(Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

(Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

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End Of An Era

CAPE CANAVERAL (CBS4) – Emotions ran high as the space shuttle Atlantis docked at the International Space Station for the final time.

Mission Control’s lead flight director declared “this is it” as he gave the OK for the historic linkup.

Every landmark, or rather spacemark, of this final two-week shuttle mission is being savored; Friday’s flawless liftoff set the tone.

Atlantis is delivering more than 4 tons of food, clothes and other space station provisions — an entire year’s worth, in fact, to keep the complex going in the looming post-shuttle era.

This was the 46th docking by a space shuttle to a space station.

Nine of those were to Russia’s Mir station back in the mid-1990s. The U.S. and Russia built on that sometimes precarious experience to create, along with a dozen other nations, the world’s largest spacecraft ever: the permanently inhabited, finally completed, 12½-year-old International Space Station.

Ferguson was at the controls as Atlantis drew closer, leading the smallest astronaut crew in decades.

Only four are flying aboard Atlantis, as NASA kept the crew to a minimum in case of an emergency. In the unlikely event that Atlantis was seriously damaged, the shuttle astronauts would need to move into the space station for months and rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to get back home. A shuttle always was on standby before for a possible rescue, but that’s no longer feasible with Discovery and Endeavour officially retired now.

Two days into this historic voyage — the 135th in 30 years of shuttle flight — Atlantis was said by NASA to be sailing smoothly, free of significant damage.

As a safeguard, Atlantis performed the usual backflip for the space station cameras, before the 230-mile-high link up. The station astronauts are equipped with powerful zoom lenses to photograph all sides of the shuttle. Experts on the ground will scrutinize the digital images for any signs of damage that might have come from fuel-tank foam, ice or other launch debris.

NASA, meanwhile, continued to bask in the afterglow of Friday’s liftoff. As part of Sunday morning’s mail to Atlantis, Mission Control sent up a 4-inch image of a shuttle made entirely of exclamation points.

Flight controllers joked that the city of Philadelphia — Ferguson’s hometown — is arranging for Lincoln Financial Field to cut its turf in the shape of the crew’s mission patch.

“The mayor was quoted as saying, ‘As long as the NFL lockout is still ongoing and the Eagles aren’t playing, we might as well use the stadium for something,'” controllers wrote in the so-called news break.

Atlantis and its crew will spend more than a week at the orbiting complex. The mission currently is scheduled to last 12 days, but NASA likely will add a 13th day to give the astronauts extra time to complete all their chores.

NASA is getting out of the launching-to-orbit business, giving the three remaining shuttles to museums, so it can start working on human trips to asteroids and Mars. Private U.S. companies will pick up the more mundane job of space station delivery runs and, still several years out, astronaut ferry flights.

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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