Thisstory was updated at 9:33 p.m. EDT.
HOUSTON -Astronauts aboard NASA?s shuttle Endeavour took some time off Wednesday in awell deserved break from their record-long construction flight at theInternational Space Station (ISS).
Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Dominic Gorie, Endeavour?s seven astronauts are in the midst of apacked 16-day mission to deliver a new crewmember, Japanesemodule and Canadian-built robot to the orbiting laboratory. The spaceflightis the longest shuttle mission to the station to date, with Gorie and his crew well ahead of theiroriginal work schedule.
?They?vegotten far enough ahead that we certainly won?t have to twist their arms toomuch to get them to rest,? ISS flight director Kwatsi Alibahuro told reporters late Tuesday.?This is a long enough mission.?
Stationcommander Peggy Whitson, who has a reputation for working through breaks, saideven she reveled in the hiatus from orbital work. ?
?We?rehaving a great time taking a break, just relaxing a bit,? Whitson told CBSNews Wednesday night during a series of televised interviews. ?I think wereally needed it ? It was nice to be able to get eight hours of sleep.?
Breaktime in space
Endeavour?sSTS-123 astronauts have performed threeof the record five spacewalks planned for their orbital constructionmission since their March 11 launch. They delivered the Japanese LogisticsPressurized module - an attic-like room for Japan?s tour bus-sized Kibo station lab -as well as Canada?s two-armedDextremaintenance robot, which astronauts assembled over the course of theirthree spacewalks.
?The viewout the window is better than movie you might think about,? Gorie told NBC News. ?Everybody?sbeen doing a little bit of that, and we had an opportunity for folks to get ona conference with their families, say hello and see their smiling faces on acomputer laptop.?
Missionmanagers added today?s off-duty day to Endeavour?s flight to break up whatwould otherwise be a continuous marathon of exhausting work for the shuttle?sseven astronauts.
?We addedthat extra flight day in the mix to get some time off between spacewalks andthe late [heat shield] inspection,? Gorie told SPACE.com before flight. ?That made theflight a lot easier to contemplate because you can?t run a crew for 15 or 16days without a little bit of a break.?
Gorie andhis crew are preparing for their mission?s fourth spacewalk, a Thursdayexcursion to test a shuttle repair technique in which astronauts will use acaulk gun-like tool to squeeze apink ablative goo into intentionally dinged heat shield tiles totest its effectiveness as an in-flight fix.
NASA haskept a close watch on shuttle heat shield health since the 2003 loss of theshuttle Columbia and its crew due to wing damage. The caulk gun and goo-likematerial is the only repair technique yet to be tested under actual spaceflightconditions.
Japan?s?Hope? in space
Earlythis morning - but dinner time for the astronauts aboard Endeavour and theISS - the 10 spaceflyers aboard both spacecraft convened for a rare mealtogether in the station?s Russian segment.
?Our mottois ?it?s all about the sauce,?? Whitson told thevisiting shuttle crew with a laugh during thepartially televised dinner. ?It doesn?t matter what food it is as long asthere?s sauce!?
They usedchopsticks to sample Japanese space cuisine courtesy of Japanese astronautTakao Doi, whois also testing new space undergarments and an orbital boomerang during hisflight.
?TheJapanese food was the best food we?ve had so far on this flight,? Gorie told Japan?sPrime Minister YasuoFukuda during a space-to-ground video link late Wednesday.
Fukudalauded the astronauts? successful installation of the logistics module forJapan?s massive laboratory Kibo,which means ?Hope? in Japanese. The small module is a storage room for its muchlarger parent Kibo lab. Whitson and Gorie both said the honor was theirs while Doi gave Fukuda andstudents in Japan a tour of the new module.
?The Kibo module isfilled with the dreams of the Japanese people and I?m very happy to fulfill thefirst step,? Doisaid. ?It?s a very small space, about four and a half tatami mats wide.?
Endeavour astronauts are now gearing up for Thursday's spacewalk, which includes the replacement of a station circuit breaker box in addition to the heat shield repair test.
?They?veall been working so hard, that I think they?ll make good use of their timetomorrow to relax and get some rest in preparation for the two remainingspacewalks still ahead for this mission,? Alibaruho said.
NASA isbroadcasting Endeavour's STS-123 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com'sshuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.
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