It's a busy week in space. The space shuttle Endeavor docked last night with the International Space Station after a spectacular night launch Monday night. Meanwhile, the first of Europe's new unmanned ATV spacecraft is closing in on ISS for a rendevous after the shuttle leaves. It was launched from French Guiana on March 8. The ATV is a cargo ship which is intended to bring regular supplies to the station. It carries three times the cargo of the Russion Progress spacecraft, which along with the shuttle currently handles all the space station resupply needs.
The astronauts on ISS have borrowed the old Navy tradition of ringing a bell to announce the arrival of a ship (or its captain). ISS commander Peggy Whitson rang the bell and called out "Endeavor arriving" as shuttle commander Dominic Gorie and his crew floated through the hatch. Once again, there are ten human beings living and working together in space at the same time, three from the station and seven from the shuttle.
This shuttle mission, STS-123, continues the blistering pace of space station construction since flights resumed after the Columbia disaster. Endeavor is delivering the first of three parts of the Japanese laboratory. It also brings a Canadian robot named Dextre (shown at left) designed to work with the station's remote manipulator arm to do construction and maintenance tasks outside the station.
There's more "I" in ISS than ever. It now includes habitable modules built by four different nations: Russia, the United States, Europe and Japan. Not to mention smaller parts built by a variety of partners such as Canada. In both a technical and a political sense it is a remarkable achievement.