Three astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are taking a well-earned break one week after NASA's shuttle Discovery left their orbital laboratory.
ISS Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineers Jeffrey Williams and Thomas Reiter were set to rest easy - with only optional tasks on their plate - this weekend as they prepare for an upcoming spacewalk. Discovery's STS-121 crew departed the ISS on July 15 leaving Reiter, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, aboard to join the Expedition 13 team.
NASA spokesperson Rob Navias told SPACE.com that the Expedition 13 crew was scheduled to relax after the busy joint operations earlier this month with Discovery's astronaut crew. The three ISS astronauts performed initial checks on a new freezer to store biological samples and a U.S.-built oxygen generator before heading into their weekend, he added.
"We're very glad that Thomas has finally arrived after a long, hard period of training," Williams told reporters in a recent interview. "It will add a different flavor to life on board to have a third crewmember, especially with Thomas whom we enjoy being with very much."
Space station expeditions were reduced to two-astronaut teams following the 2003 loss of NASA's Columbia orbiter and its seven-astronaut crew, leaving only the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft available to ferry new teams to the ISS. Discovery returned NASA's shuttle fleet to flight status in July 2005, but stood down for almost one year as the space agency wrangled with external tank debris issues.
Discovery's STS-121 mission completed NASA's cycle of two test flights before resuming ISS construction next month with the planned Aug. 28 launch of the STS-115 mission aboard Atlantis. Discovery landed on July 17 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center after a 13-day mission to the ISS.
"I'm extremely happy to be on board," Reiter said recently. "It was a big wait, but finally we're all together."
Reiter joined the Expedition 13 astronauts midway through their six-month mission on July 6, when Discovery and its STS-121 crew docked at the ISS. He is a veteran of one other long-duration spaceflight - 1995's EuroMir 95 mission to the Russian Space Station Mir - in which he spent 179 days in orbit.
During the eight days of docked operations Reiter watched over the transfer of tons of cargo and equipment - most importantly his personal items, food and a custom-built seat liner to cushion any Soyuz trip he might have to make while aboard - made their way into the space station's cupboards, NASA officials said.
Navias said Reiter and his fellow Expedition 13 crewmates had the option of moving cargo out of Progress 22, a Russian-built unmanned supply ship that arrived at the ISS just over one week before Discovery, or getting ahead on some of their pre-spacewalk tasks.
Reiter and Williams are set to don U.S.-built spacesuits on Aug. 3 for a six-hour spacewalk set to begin at 9:55 a.m. EDT (1355 GMT).
"This is an honor and privilege to fly for the European Space Agency as the first long-time flight of a German astronaut [to ISS]," Reiter said. "I hope that more European astronauts can join this in the future."
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