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Women star in historic space-station link-up

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Astronauts aboard space shuttle Discovery and the international space station joined forces Thursday, linking their ships and kicking off the biggest construction job ever attempted by a single team in orbit.

History was made with the 215-mile-high linkup: It was the first time two female commanders met in space.

Retired Air Force Col. Pamela Melroy steered Discovery in for the docking and was the first to enter the space station. She was embraced by Peggy Whitson, the station's skipper.

Right before the two spacecraft hooked up, Melroy guided Discovery through a 360-degree backflip so the station crew could photograph the entire shuttle. The pictures were hurriedly beamed down so NASA could determine whether Discovery's belly sustained any launch damage from ice or insulating foam from the fuel tank.

A small patch of ice that shook loose from fuel tank plumbing at the moment of liftoff Tuesday ended up grazing the fuel-feedline hatch on the bottom of the shuttle. John Shannon, chairman of the mission management team, likened it to an ice cube falling 10 inches and said the hatch was unharmed

In fact, Shannon said most if not all of the shuttle's thermal shielding looks to be in good shape, including three wing panels that a safety engineering group urged to have replaced before the flight. Further analysis is needed before NASA can say definitively that Discovery suffered no significant launch damage. But unless something new pops up, engineers see no need for additional shuttle inspections.

When informed of this Thursday evening, Melroy exclaimed, "Oh man, that is fantastic news."

Earlier in the day, laughter and shouts of "How you doing?" filled the space station as the seven shuttle astronauts floated in one after the other and greeted the three station occupants.