Space station crew swells to 13 with shuttle team

Fri Jul 17, 2009 5:15pm EDT
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Shuttle Endeavour astronauts floated aboard the International Space Station on Friday, swelling its crew to a record 13 and marking the start of an ambitious 11-day construction mission.

After parking Endeavour and checking for leaks, the seven shuttle astronauts clambered through hatches shortly before 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) and were embraced by station commander Gennady Padalka and his five crewmates.

It was the first time representatives from all five of the primary station partners -- the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada -- were together in orbit.

"We're extremely happy to be here," said Endeavour commander Mark Polansky. "Thirteen is a pretty big number."

The crew's main job is to install the last part of Japan's research laboratory, an open platform to house science experiments outside the station. During five spacewalks, the first scheduled for Saturday, they also plan to replace batteries in the station's solar power system and position spare parts to prepare the orbital outpost for operations after the shuttles are retired next year.

As the astronauts gathered in orbit, NASA began looking at its remaining shuttle fuel tanks in hopes of learning why Endeavour's tank shed insulating foam during its climb to orbit on Wednesday.

The agency said the problem, which has been a safety issue since space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard, needs to be resolved before the next shuttle is cleared for launch.

NASA has seven flights remaining to complete construction of the space station.   Continued...

<p>The space shuttle Endeavour passes beneath the Japanese Kibo module of the International Space Station as it approaches the orbital outpost for docking in this image from NASA TV July 17, 2009. REUTERS/NASA TV</p>