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Published: Monday, 3/7/2011

Discovery readies for last return to Earth

Space station crew pays tribute to craft

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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

Now 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 departure Monday.

"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 Commander Kelly. The skipper noted that all the mission objectives had been accomplished: The new storage unit carried up by Discovery was installed and unloaded, leaving behind an empty, pristine compartment ready to serve its purpose.

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. "You guys rock," he said.

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 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, bounced off the walls, and floated through with outstretched arms like underwater swimmers.

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.

Only two other shuttle missions remain.

Endeavour is to blast off April 19 with Commander Kelly's identical twin, Mark, at the controls. Mark is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (R., Ariz.), who is recuperating from a gunshot in the head.

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



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