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(NASA)

Shuttle Stop

The tensest moment in spaceflight: Docking with a 100-ton space station while orbiting Earth at five miles per second.

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“Ten feet, zero point nine on the R-dot,” I called out, glancing at the laptop. My voice rose a notch in both volume and pitch.

Up in the commander’s seat, Roman powered up the firing circuit for the automatic thruster sequence to be triggered two inches from contact. “PCT [post-contact thrusting] is armed,” he announced. The computer-controlled shove would bang the shuttle’s and station’s docking rings together with enough force to guarantee capture. The last few feet came in a rush.

“Six feet, point one one.”

From the cockpit, the station seemed to descend on us like a giant industrial press, an enormous mass bent on ramming straight through the cargo bay. I tensed for the impact even as I called out the remaining distance.

“Eighteen inches, R-dot is good.”

“One foot, petal overlap.” The three metal alignment vanes atop each docking ring swept past each other toward impact.

“Six inches…two inches!”

Just before the rings slammed together, Taco mashed the PCT button on the autopilot panel. Atlantis shook with thruster firings as the force of the impact compressed the shock absorbers of the docking rings.

Two blue lights flashed on the docking panel. “Capture!” called Beamer. The two spaceships bobbed gently, held lightly together by the latches on the docking petals. Dampening springs quickly brought the motion to a halt.

“Capture confirmed, Houston,” radioed Taco, satisfaction obvious in his voice.

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