Shuttle races to space station rendezvous
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- The space shuttle Atlantis sped toward the international space station Thursday after a predawn launch, bringing a new front door for the orbiting outpost.
The shuttle astronauts will be the first visitors for the residents of space station Alpha in more than two months. Their gift to the hosts: a $165 million air lock that will allow Alpha inhabitants to easily take spacewalks from their modular home.
Atlantis should dock with Alpha on Friday, the day before shuttle astronauts begin installing the air pressure chamber to the station's Unity module.
On Thursday, Atlantis roared into skies from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Stormy weather threatened to delay the launch, but the skies stayed clear enough for Atlantis to lift off as scheduled before dawn.
The shuttle then began chasing the space station in orbit, more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) above the Earth. Shortly after launch, NASA informed the Alpha crew that they would have five guests.
"Congratulations. You're going to get company," a ground controller told the one Russian and two Americans onboard Alpha.
The shuttle was originally expected to fly in June, but technical problems with the new robotic arm on Alpha forced NASA to postpone the mission.
The $600 million multi-jointed crane, which moves end over end like an inchworm on the Alpha exterior, has since recuperated during repeated testing. And NASA managers are confident the 58-foot (17-meter) arm will work well when the Alpha crew attaches the air lock to the space station.
The Canadian-built robot arm, which another shuttle crew delivered in April, is necessary to move the 6.5-ton aluminum portal and four smaller pressurized gas chambers from Atlantis to Alpha.
On Saturday, two Atlantis astronauts will conduct the first spacewalk to install the air lock, which will allow Alpha residents to don NASA spacesuits and venture into space from a U.S. module without the assistance of visiting shuttles.
Currently, Alpha crews must wear Russian spacesuits and exit from a Russian segment of the outpost.
During the 11-day mission, two other spacewalks will be required to install the space station doorway. The astronauts are expected to stage the last one using the new Alpha air lock.
The Atlantis crew is expected to pursue more artistic enterprises as well. The shuttle has two IMAX cameras onboard, taking their seventh flight into space. The cameras are designed to film the shuttle cargo bay and the space station interior for the upcoming "Space Station," a six-story screen IMAX movie that should debut in the spring.
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