Astronauts Bid Emotional Farewell to Station Crew
NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff gives a parting bear hug (facing out) to departing spaceflyer Garrett Reisman during a farewell ceremony between the station's Expedition 17 and Discovery shuttle's STS-124 crew on June 10, 2008.
Credit: NASA TV.

HOUSTON — The seven astronauts of NASA?s shuttle Discovery bid an emotional farewell to the three-man crew of the International Space Station (ISS) Tuesday after more than a week of construction work to install the orbiting lab?s largest room.

Discovery commander Mark Kelly and his crew said goodbye to the space station astronauts with wide smiles and hugs before shutting the hatches between their two spacecraft. The shuttle is due to undock from the station Wednesday at 7:42 a.m. EDT (1142 GMT) and land Saturday.

?These guys performed wonderfully,? said station commander Sergei Volkov. ?We?re glad to work with you guys and thank you.?

Discovery docked at the space station on June 2 to deliver Japan?s massive, billion-dollar Kibo laboratory during three spacewalks. About the size of a large tour bus, Japan?s 37-foot (11-meter) research module is the second of three massive components that make up its Kibo science facility. A porch-like external platform for experiments and a small robotic arm are slated to be added to Kibo next year.

The shuttle crew attached the Kibo lab?s attic-like storage module and tested out its main 33-foot (10-meter) robotic arm during their mission. The astronauts also ferried a new crew member to the space station - NASA spaceflyer Gregory Chamitoff.

?I can hardly believe this time has come, it?s been an amazing adventure,? said Chamitoff, his voice quavering at times, as he said farewell to Kelly and his shuttle crewmates. ?I wanted to say that a lot of us were rookies before this flight and it?s been a real honor and privilege to be part of the shuttle crew.?

Chamitoff, one of five first-time flyers who launched aboard Discovery on May 31, is replacing NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman as a member of the station?s Expedition 17 crew. He is beginning a planned six-month mission while Reisman, who arrived at the station in March, is wrapping up his own three-month stay.

?One day, this would all be over, and that day is now,? Reisman said.

Matt Abbott, NASA?s lead shuttle flight director for Discovery?s STS-124 mission, said the spaceflight has gone amazingly well.

?It?s really been a wonderful mission,? Abbott said Tuesday in a briefing here at NASA?s Johnson Space Center. ?I couldn?t be more proud of this team and this crew for what they?ve been able to accomplish.?

Once the shuttle undocks Wednesday, Kelly and his crew are expected to make a detailed scan of their spacecraft?s heat shield panels. Discovery launched without the now-standard heat shield inspection boom because the nearly 16-ton Kibo lab was simply too big. Wednesday?s scan, which follows earlier photographic and video inspections using Discovery?s robotic arm, is expected to help engineers clear the shuttle for its planned Saturday landing.

Reisman assured Chamitoff he?d do a great job as the sole American member of the station?s U.S.-Russian crew, quipping that it?s a great responsibility to take care of such a tremendous international asset.

?It was not a perfect performance by myself by any means, but I managed not to break anything really expensive,? Reisman said. ?And I?m leaving now with the station in good hands, and a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.?

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