Thisstory was updated at 2:51 p.m. EDT.
HOUSTON ?After successfully delivering the largest-ever lab to the International SpaceStation (ISS), the seven astronauts returning home aboard NASA?s shuttleDiscovery are taking some much deserved time off Thursday as they prepare for aweekend landing.
Discoverycommander Mark Kelly and his crew took a few hours to rest after their busyconstruction flight to install the station?s billion-dollar Japanese Kibolaboratory, aroomy module the size of a large tour-bus.
?It was areally exciting mission,? Kelly said before Discovery undockedfrom the station Wednesday.
Shuttleastronauts delivered the 37-foot (11-meter) Kibo lab, added its rooftop storageroom and performed three spacewalks to maintain the station and prime the newJapanese module?s robotic arm for work during nine days docked at the orbitinglaboratory. They also swapped out one member of the station?s three-man crewduring their trip.
The shuttleis set to land Saturday at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT) at the agency?s KennedySpace Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Kelly told SPACE.combefore the flight that he hoped to spend at least some of his free time huntingfor Mt. Everest from space. Though he?s now flying his third space mission, thetallest mountain on Earth has proven oddly elusive.
?It?s hardto identify because you?re looking down and you can?t tell which one is thebiggest one,? Kelly said then, adding that you also need to plan for the righttime, camera, lens and window view. ?To take a picture of Earth, you?ve got toplan about halfway around the planet.?
Meanwhile,Discovery mission specialist Garrett Reisman is spending his lastfew days in weightless after living aboard the space station for the pastthree months. His replacement, NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, arrived withDiscovery?s crew last week.
?We call itfloating, but really it?s more like flying because as soon as you push off,you?re flying through the air like some sort of superhero,? Reisman said beforeleaving the station. ?To be able to do that every day as you?re coming in towork, it?s unreal. That?s what I?ll miss the most.?
Returningto Earth with Kelly and Garrett are shuttle pilot Kenneth Ham and missionspecialists Karen Nyberg, Ronald Garan, Michael Fossum and Akihiko Hoshide, aJapanese spaceflyerwho helped deliver his country?s new space lab. The astronauts talked about theirflight with reporters on Earth Thursday, including a call from ESPN?s ?Mike &Mike in the Morning,? where Ham discussed the challenge of orbital athletics.
?We?ve beentrying to invent new sports, which is kind of an interesting endeavor,? Ham said,adding that you could set up the perfect baseball hit on the space station,just not whack it. ?We?re surrounded by a lot of expensive equipment in alldirections, so it?s sort of hazardous to our paychecks to really experiment inthe fullest.?
Shuttleheat shield check
While theshuttle crew rests, engineers on Earth are hard at work sifting through imagesand data beamed home Wednesday by the astronauts during their detailedinspection of Discovery?s heat-resistant wing edges and nose cap.
The surveywas identical to now-standard scans performed on the second day of NASA shuttleflights to search for dings or damage from launch debris. A second inspectionperformed before landing is aimed at spotting pockmarks from orbital debris.The 50-foot (15-meter) boom tipped with laser and cameras used in the surveywas developed after the 2003 Columbia tragedy.
But NASAlaunched Discovery without its own boom because Japan?s massive Kibo labtook up too much room in the shuttle?s payload bay. Instead, astronautsperformed a limited scan using the orbiter?s robotic arm, then retrieved an inspection boom leftoutside the station by a previous shuttle mission.
?I willsay, to my untrained eye, I personally didn?t see anything unusual and we werevery pleased with the data that we were able to get,? lead shuttle flightdirector Matt Abbott said Wednesday.
TetsuroYokoyama, the deputy Kibo project operations manager for the Japan AerospaceExploration Agency (JAXA) that built the new lab said Japan?s mission controlcenter at the country?s Tsukuba Space Center is running at full speed andbeaming with pride.
The mainKibo lab is the second of three parts of the station?s Japanese segment. Itincludes comes ready with two windows, a 33-foot (10-meter) robotic arm and asmall airlock to move experiments to a third component - a porch-like externalplatform slated to launch next year. A smaller robot arm for fine movements isalso due to be delivered next year.
Kibo is thethird orbital room to be installed at the station this year and follows its ownstorage module and the European Space Agency?s Columbus lab, which weredelivered earlier this year.
?We feelvery good about the configuration of the International Space Station,? saidKenny Todd, NASA?s station program manager for mission operations andintegration. ?Clearly where we are now with the arrival of this pressurizedmodule, this new laboratory capability on orbit, is a crowning achievement notonly for our Japanese colleagues, but for our international partnership.?
NASA isbroadcasting the Discovery's STS-124 mission live on NASA TV on Saturday. Click here for SPACE.com'sshuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.
Editor?snote: This story was written in Houston and updated in Cape Canveral, Fla.
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