Sunita ready to come down to earth
Houston, June 11
The shuttle Atlantis successfully docked with the International Space Station, where Sunita is one of the crew members, today to bring back 41-year-old Williams, whose stay in space is the longest for any woman.
The shuttle, on its first mission of the year, suffered a 10-cm tear on its thermal blanket and a few pieces of foam fell off during launch on Friday, but NASA officials said the agency did not consider the damage significant. There is not a great deal of concern now, officials added.
Amidst greetings, hugs and handshakes with the 11-member Shuttle crew, who arrived at the orbiting outpost, Sunita wrapped up her duty as a station crew member by switching places with Mission Specialist Clayton Anderson.
Sunita will now start packing her stuff to return home on June 19.
However, amidst the smiles and salutations, questions remained unanswered about the section of peeled-back thermal blanket on the shuttle.
Engineers continued to review photographs of the affected area to determine whether it could pose a problem when Atlantis returns to earth. The rest of the vehicle appeared to be in fine shape, NASA said.
NASA is taking no chances after the Colombia disaster in February 2003, when Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla and six other crew members perished mid-air. The shuttle disintegrated on re-entry to earth when a protective foam tile shook loose and a hole burned into the shuttle’s body.
Engineers weren’t sure whether stitching on the thermal blanket came loose or whether the blanket, covering a pod of engines near the shuttle’s tail, was hit by debris during launch.
Sunita is looking forward and longing to meet her family, especially her parents, Deepak and Bonnie Pandya, her husband Michael Williams and above all her special dog, Gorby.
Hatches between the two spacecraft opened about one-and-a-half hours after the shuttle docked with the space station today.
“Atlantis arriving”, Sunita Williams said after the traditional ringing of a bell. Atlantis’ astronauts floated into the space station’s destiny laboratory and hugged each of the station’s residents, which includes the commander, Fyodor Yurchikhin, and the cosmonaut Oleg Kotov.
After exchanging greetings and receiving a safety briefing, both crews resumed work.
Prior to Atlantis’ arrival, astronaut Danny Olivas took additional photographs from inside the shuttle of the area where the thermal blanket had peeled back. The images were sent to Mission Control for analysis. Astronauts inside the space station also took photographs of the shuttle’s belly when Atlantis was 600 feet below the orbiting outpost. — PTI