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In space, final farewells for 'Discovery' and crew

In this photo provided by NASA, American and European astronauts and Russian cosmonauts pose for a group portrait inside the U.S. lab Destiny as they take a break on Thursday from a busy week aboard the International Space Station.

Associated Press

In this photo provided by NASA, American and European astronauts and Russian cosmonauts pose for a group portrait inside the U.S. lab Destiny as they take a break on Thursday from a busy week aboard the International Space Station.

CAPE CANAVERAL — The space shuttle and space station crews hugged goodbye Sunday after more than a week together, but saved their most heartfelt farewell for Discovery.

On its final voyage after nearly three decades, Discovery, the most traveled rocket ship ever, will be retired after this week's return to Earth.

The hatches between Discovery and the International Space Station were sealed Sunday afternoon, setting the stage for the shuttle's scheduled departure today.

"We're going to miss you," the space station's commander, Scott Kelly, told the six shuttle astronauts. "But most of all we're going to miss Discovery.

"Discovery has been a great ship and has really supported the International Space Station more so, I think, than any other space shuttle. We wish her fair winds and following seas."

Shuttle skipper Steven Lindsey nodded in agreement, then shook hands with Kelly. Lindsey noted that all the mission objectives had been accomplished: The new storage unit carried up by Discovery was installed and unloaded.

Lead flight director Royce Renfrew radioed up congratulations to the two crews before the hatches slammed shut. He said he was "really proud to take Discovery home at the very top of her game," and he credited the astronauts in large part.

Mission Control gave Discovery's astronauts two extra days at the orbiting outpost. They took advantage of the bonus time to empty the storage unit of all the gear that went up inside it. The bonus days stretched the entire mission to 13 days on top of the 352 days already logged during Discovery's previous 38 missions.

In their last hour together, the 12 astronauts amused themselves in the new 21-foot-long, 15-foot-wide storage compartment. Taking turns a few at a time, they performed somersaults in the center of the chamber.

The astronauts were having so much fun that Mission Control was sorry to interrupt. "I hate to ring the recess bell on you," Mission Control radioed, reminding the shuttle crew of one last job remaining before the hatches needed to be shut.

Immediately after undocking, Discovery will fly a victory lap of sorts around the orbiting lab, essentially for picture-taking. Then the shuttle astronauts will pull out an inspection boom and survey their ship for any signs of micrometeorite damage.

Landing is scheduled for Wednesday.

Aboard the space station, meanwhile, the crew hopes in the next week or two to unpack the humanoid robot that was left behind. The robot, named R2 for Robonaut 2, is the first humanoid in space.

Mission Control, meanwhile, is monitoring a piece of space junk — an old rocket segment — that is threatening to come too close to the space station on Wednesday. Experts will assess the risk to the station following Discovery's undocking and determine whether the complex will have to move out of the way. The shuttle is not expected to be affected by the debris, officials said.

Only two other shuttle missions remain.

Endeavour is due to blast off April 19 with Kelly's twin brother, Mark, at the controls. Mark is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is recuperating from a gunshot to the head.

Atlantis will close out the 30-year shuttle program with a launch at the end of June.

Former astronaut dies: Three-time space shuttle crew member John Lounge, who was part of the first shuttle mission after the 1986 Challenger disaster, is dead at age 64. NASA said in a statement that he died on Tuesday in Houston. A cause of death wasn't released.

In space, final farewells for 'Discovery' and crew 03/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 11:04pm]

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