Space shuttle Discovery undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) Tuesday with six NASA astronauts, one European Space Agency (ESA) mission specialist and a Star Command Space Ranger for the trip back to Earth.
Yes, that's right, Buzz Lightyear is on his way home.
The animated astronaut has been on a real space mission in the form of a 12-inch tall action figure since launching last year aboard Discovery's STS-124 mission, as part of an educational partnership between NASA and the Walt Disney Company.
Buzz is returning with the STS-128 crew, including space station flight engineer Tim Kopra who spent 44 days living on the ISS. By comparison, Lightyear will have logged 467 days in space, assuming that the weather in Florida does not delay his scheduled landing on Thursday evening.
That is a record, says Disney, pointing out that Lightyear's stay surpasses the longest duration space mission set in 1995 by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov by a month.
During his time on-board the station, with the help of his crewmates, Lightyear has been the star of recorded videos that are aimed at exciting children about spaceflight, while teaching them the basics of working in weightlessness.
A similar goal is shared by other items returning with the STS-128 astronauts. Although in space for less time than Buzz, just 13 days, the astronauts each packed items to thank those who supported them while helping promote the role space exploration plays back on Earth.
Toys and games
Buzz Lightyear is not the only toy aboard Discovery.
STS-128 pilot Kevin Ford, making his first flight, brought a seven-inch model of the space shuttle for his elementary school and as a Hoosier, a model car for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana.
Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, who coincidentally combined both of Ford's items in the form of candy he flew for his crewmates, chose among his mementos a chess piece for the Swedish Chess Academy.
The wood-carved knight, like the shuttle and car models, were stowed inside the STS-128 Official Flight Kit, a duffle bag-sized container of souvenirs flown at the request of the astronauts and the space agency. The items it carries remain out of reach of the crew for the length of the flight.
Which is why Fuglesang, who also flew a mini frisbee, was unable to best his own record on this mission. Once a Swedish national frisbee champion, Fuglesang on his first flight in 2006 set a record for "time aloft" by floating a spinning frisbee for 20 seconds aboard the ISS.
With his chess piece and frisbee out of reach, Fuglesang devised other means of sharing a game from space.
Challenging the public to a chess match, Fuglesang built a board on the back page of the mission checklist.
"I needed some kind of chess board and so I made it out of Velcro for myself," he explained in a pre-flight interview with collectSPACE. Using blue and yellow hook-and-latch squares, Fuglesang affixed paper pieces that he moved in response to e-mailed challenges.
As of Wednesday, the Swedish media was reporting that Fuglesang's rook, guarding his queen, might be in trouble.
"I am kind of a good amateur player," Fuglesang said of his own abilities. "When I was a teenager, I played for two years in a club and did a bit of competition, but I never raised above average."
Flying the flag
Fuglesang is not flying the white flag to surrender just yet, though the completion of his chess match, which began before he launched, may not come until after he lands. He is however, flying the Swedish flag.
The blue and yellow banner, which is also featured on the STS-128 crew's mission patch, is among a collection of flags inside the Official Flight Kit.
"I am flying a couple of flags," shared Jose Hernandez, whose family were Mexican migrant workers. "One is for a squadron from Mexico that participated in World World II. They asked me to fly their squadron's flag. I am flying a Mexican flag that I will present to President Calderon when I return."
Danny Olivas, who like Hernandez is a mission specialist of Mexican descent, chose to highlight another country's role in his youth.
"The country of Bhutan and my alma mater, University of Texas at El Paso, share an affiliation. The architecture at UTEP is all Bhutanese architecture and so the country, their government, and UT El Paso have a pretty close relationship and so in discussions with the folks at UTEP and with representatives of the country, we were able to get a flag."
Ford, in addition to packing models, brought a flag for one of his schools, the Air Force Institute of Technology.
"Although they have graduated many astronauts, I do not think they had ever had anything ever offered to them. So I am flying their flag and they are going to hang it back in their entry way and make a little note underneath about their contribution to the astronaut corps," said Ford.
For astronaut Pat Forrester the chance to fly a flag was even more personal.
"During the training for this flight, my father passed away. He was my biggest fan, loved space, loved NASA. So he was 30 years with the military, a West Pointer just like me and he was buried at Arlington [Cemetery] in September. And the honor guard that did his service, I am flying their guidon and will present that back to them when I get back ? just a way of thanking them for the way that they honored him in his burial."
As Forrester mentioned, the crew members will embark on tours of the country, and to Sweden and other international destinations, to return the items they flew.
"Hopefully, [these items] will serve as motivation for kids and for people who are part of the organization that once presented to them, will say 'Hey, if they did it, why can't I do it?'," said Hernandez.
One such opportunity is set for early October when Disney plans a ticker-tape parade at the Magic Kingdom in Florida to welcome Buzz Lightyear back to Earth, together with several of his NASA space station crewmates.
Read the complete contents of the STS-128 Official Flight Kit at collectSPACE.com.
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