June 12, 2008

Space Shuttle Astronauts Take Time Off

story was updated at 2:51 p.m. EDT.

After successfully delivering the largest-ever lab to the International Space
Station (ISS), the seven astronauts returning home aboard NASA's shuttle
Discovery are taking some much deserved time off Thursday as they prepare for a
weekend landing.

commander Mark Kelly and his crew took a few hours to rest after their busy
construction flight to install the station's billion-dollar Japanese Kibo
laboratory, a
roomy module
the size of a large tour-bus.

"It was a
really exciting mission," Kelly said before Discovery undocked
from the station

astronauts delivered the 37-foot (11-meter) Kibo lab, added its rooftop storage
room and performed three spacewalks to maintain the station and prime the new
Japanese module's robotic arm for work during nine days docked at the orbiting
laboratory. They also swapped out one member of the station's three-man crew
during their trip.

The shuttle
is set to land Saturday at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT) at the agency's Kennedy
Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Kelly told SPACE.com
before the flight that he hoped to spend at least some of his free time hunting
for Mt. Everest from space. Though he's now flying his third space mission, the
tallest mountain on Earth has proven oddly elusive.

"It's hard
to identify because you're looking down and you can't tell which one is the
biggest one," Kelly said then, adding that you also need to plan for the right
time, camera, lens and window view. "To take a picture of Earth, you've got to
plan about halfway around the planet."

Discovery mission specialist Garrett Reisman is spending his last
few days in weightless
after living aboard the space station for the past
three months. His replacement, NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, arrived with
Discovery's crew last week.

"We call it
floating, but really it's more like flying because as soon as you push off,
you're flying through the air like some sort of superhero," Reisman said before
leaving the station. "To be able to do that every day as you're coming in to
work, it's unreal. That's what I'll miss the most."

to Earth with Kelly and Garrett are shuttle pilot Kenneth Ham and mission
specialists Karen Nyberg, Ronald Garan, Michael Fossum and Akihiko Hoshide, a
Japanese spaceflyer
who helped deliver his country's new space lab. The astronauts talked about their
flight with reporters on Earth Thursday, including a call from ESPN's "Mike &
Mike in the Morning," where Ham discussed the challenge of orbital athletics.

"We've been
trying to invent new sports, which is kind of an interesting endeavor," Ham said,
adding that you could set up the perfect baseball hit on the space station,
just not whack it. "We're surrounded by a lot of expensive equipment in all
directions, so it's sort of hazardous to our paychecks to really experiment in
the fullest."

heat shield check

While the
shuttle crew rests, engineers on Earth are hard at work sifting through images
and data beamed home Wednesday by the astronauts during their detailed
inspection of Discovery's heat-resistant wing edges and nose cap.

The survey
was identical to now-standard scans performed on the second day of NASA shuttle
flights to search for dings or damage from launch debris. A second inspection
performed before landing is aimed at spotting pockmarks from orbital debris.
The 50-foot (15-meter) boom tipped with laser and cameras used in the survey
was developed after the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

launched Discovery
without its own boom because Japan's massive Kibo lab
took up too much room in the shuttle's payload bay. Instead, astronauts
performed a limited scan using the orbiter's robotic arm, then retrieved an inspection boom left
outside the station by a previous shuttle mission.

"I will
say, to my untrained eye, I personally didn't see anything unusual and we were
very pleased with the data that we were able to get," lead shuttle flight
director Matt Abbott said Wednesday.

Yokoyama, the deputy Kibo project operations manager for the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency (JAXA) that built the new lab said Japan's mission control
center at the country's Tsukuba Space Center is running at full speed and
beaming with pride.

The main
Kibo lab is the second of three parts of the station's Japanese segment. It
includes comes ready with two windows, a 33-foot (10-meter) robotic arm and a
small airlock to move experiments to a third component - a porch-like external
platform slated to launch next year. A smaller robot arm for fine movements is
also due to be delivered next year.

Kibo is the
third orbital room to be installed at the station this year and follows its own
storage module
and the European Space Agency's Columbus lab, which were
delivered earlier this year.

"We feel
very good about the configuration of the International Space Station," said
Kenny Todd, NASA's station program manager for mission operations and
integration. "Clearly where we are now with the arrival of this pressurized
module, this new laboratory capability on orbit, is a crowning achievement not
only for our Japanese colleagues, but for our international partnership."

broadcasting the Discovery's STS-124 mission live on NASA TV on Saturday. Click here for SPACE.com's
shuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.

note: This story was written in Houston and updated in Cape Canveral, Fla.