July 17, 2009 -- Thirteen's a crowd. In space, it's the largest crowd ever assembled in one place.
When the seven astronauts of space shuttle Endeavour docked Friday afternoon with the six crewmen of the International Space Station, they set a record for the number of space flyers together in the heavens. The station has only had a six-member crew since May, and should continue to have six people on board at any time for the rest of its operational life.
Endeavour docked at the station as the two craft passed 220 miles above the Australian coast.
A little while later, the hatches were opened. The seven shuttle astronauts floated into the space station, one by one, and embraced their six station colleagues. It was a bit of a mob scene, a floating jumble of dark shirts, beige pants and shorts, and white socks.
"Welcome," said the station's commander, the Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.
"Thirteen is a pretty big number, but it's going to be an outstanding visit for us," said shuttle commander Mark Polansky. "We are just thrilled to be here."
Besides being the biggest space gathering ever, it was the most diverse: seven Americans, two Russians, two Canadians, one Japanese and one Belgian. Twelve men, one woman. Four medical doctors. And several pilots to round things out.
The shuttle is there to deliver part of a Japanese laboratory, known as Kibo. Astronauts will also go on five spacewalks, replacing batteries and installing other components. The space station is not yet finished, but there are already parts that have worn out since the first station modules were launched back in 1998.
Before docking, Endeavour came up to the station from below and did a slow, graceful backflip, so that Padalka and his crewmates could photograph every inch of the shuttle's underside with telephoto lenses. NASA was surprised when, during launch, the shuttle was hit by several pieces of debris that broke loose from the large orange external fuel tank.
Such debris is not unusual. Endeavour landed in fine shape at the end of a flight in 2007, after mission managers spent much of the mission debating whether to do anything about a damaged tile near the shuttle's tail.
Shuttle + Station = 13 Space Flyers
But NASA managers were shaken to the core by the Columbia disaster in 2003, when a suitcase-sized piece of foam broke off the fuel tank, tore a hole in the ship's wing – and was dismissed as inconsequential by engineers who had no way to look for the damage. Super-hot gases, coming through that hole like the flame from a blowtorch on re-entry, doomed Columbia and its seven astronauts.
Ever since, NASA has had laborious procedures to check for similar damage, and that is what is happening now. On the second day of the flight, Endeavour's astronauts used a camera, extended from the end of the shuttle's robot arm, to examine the shuttle's underside inch by inch – and they will repeat the whole thing before landing.
The verdict so far is that Endeavour is in fine shape.
"The bird looks beautiful from here," said space station astronaut Michael Barratt.
The Associated Press contributed reporting for this story