March 26, 2009

Discovery Conducts Final Inspections Before Heading To Earth

Space shuttle Discovery astronauts conducted one final inspection of the shuttle on Thursday as it prepares for its trip back to Earth following an eight-day visit to the International Space Station.

Crewmembers guided a robotic arm attached to a 50-foot boom to inspect Discovery for any damage from micrometeorites while docked with the orbiting outpost.

The procedure became routine after the 2003 Columbia disaster killed seven astronauts.

Discovery and the space station closed their respective hatches at 1:59 p.m. EDT Wednesday, marking the end of the STS-119 mission, NASA said.

Shuttle astronauts took part in three spacewalks over the course of their visit to the space station. They completed the installation of the final pair of solar wings to the space station, in order to nearly double the amount of power onboard the ISS so that more crewmembers will be able to board the laboratory for longer periods of time.

The new set of 115-foot wings was successfully unfurled on Friday, bringing the total number to eight attached to the space station.

"This is the toughest part of the mission, at least for me," station commander Mike Fincke told the Discovery crew. "It was really great having you up here."

"You've made the space station much better than it was before," said Fincke.

"You gave us more power, symmetry "” which is not to be underrated "” and you gave us a new crew member."

Koichi Wakata arrived aboard Discovery to replace NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus. Wakata became the first Japanese crewmember aboard the International Space Station.

Wakata will soon be joined by commander Gennady Padalka, flight engineer Michael Barratt and second-time space tourist Charles Simonyi, who left aboard a Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft earlier today.

The crew will become the 19th crew to live aboard the orbiting outpost.

The mission marks Simonyi's second venture into space, making him the world's first two-time space tourist.

They are scheduled to dock with the station at 8:14 a.m. Saturday, March 28, according to NASA.


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