CAPE CANAVERAL — As the miles melted between Atlantis and the International Space Station, the emotions grew — in orbit and on the ground.
At Mission Control on Sunday, lead flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho declared "this is it" as he gave the okay for the final docking in space shuttle history.
About 240 miles above the Pacific, space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. called out, "Atlantis arriving. Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time."
"And it's great to be here," replied shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson.
Cries of joy and laughter filled the connected vessels once the hatches swung open and the two crews — 10 space fliers altogether — exchanged hugs, handshakes and kisses on the cheek.
Atlantis, carrying a year's worth of supplies, is being retired after this flight, the last of the 30-year shuttle program.
"I won't say that I got close to welling up in the eyes, but I will say that it was a powerful moment for me," Alibaruho later told reporters.
Within a few hours of the emotional moment, news came that NASA was monitoring a piece of space junk that could come dangerously close to the orbiting shuttle-station complex on Tuesday — right in the middle of a space walk.
Mission management team chairman LeRoy Cain stressed it was still too soon to know whether the unidentified object would truly pose a threat, and that a decision would be made today as to whether the linked spacecraft would have to move out of harm's way. The size of the object was not immediately known.