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Discovery's crew faces massive construction

Discovery linked up with the international space station Thursday, and its staff is ready to start the most meticulous construction work ever endeavoured.

With commander Pamela Melroy at the helm, Discovery snuggled up to the space station and latched on after performing a giant somersault to give engineers a close look at the ship's belly and make sure it was not damaged during liftoff.

The docking marked the historic meetup of the first two spacecraft simultaneously commanded by women. Space station commander Peggy Whitson is the first woman to be in charge of the orbiting lab.

NASA engineers did not spot anything significant in a preliminary look at images captured during Wednesday's meticulous examination of Discovery's nose and wings, said John Shannon, head of the mission management team.

But officials will need even more data and analyses before they can be sure the shuttle's thermal shielding made it through the launch damage-free.

Photos taken during Endeavour's pre-docking backflip in August allowed engineers to spot a worrisome gouge in that ship's belly. The shuttle landed safely after several days of debate over whether in-flight repairs were needed.

Inspections like the one Wednesday became standard procedure after a piece of foam broke off Columbia's external fuel tank during liftoff and gashed a wing, allowing hot gases to penetrate the spacecraft during its return to Earth. The shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

About six pieces of foam broke off Discovery's external fuel tank during launch and one or more may have hit the shuttle, but it happened late enough to be of little or no concern. Shannon said nothing appeared to come off the tank's brackets, which were modified after Endeavour's landing.

Later Thursday, astronaut Daniel Tani will ceremoniously change places with Anderson, who has been living on the station since June and will return to Earth aboard Discovery. Tani will remain on board until the next shuttle flight, slated for December.

"I can't wait to settle into my new home," Tani said after being awoken to the song "Dancing in the Moonlight."

The Discovery crew will not have much time to get comfortable with an action-packed schedule that calls for a record-tying five spacewalks.

The astronauts have to install Discovery's primary payload, a pressurized compartment that will be a docking port for European and Japanese laboratories being launched on the next three shuttle flights.

An Italian astronaut making his first spaceflight, Paolo Nespoli, is personally delivering the chamber, named Harmony by schoolchildren who took part in a national competition.

The astronauts also have to move a massive girder and set of solar wings on the station and pull out the solar wings and radiators.

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