The seven astronauts aboard NASA's space shuttle Endeavour will convert their spacecraft into a 100-ton glider today to prepare for a planned Sunday landing and, for one spaceflyer, a long-awaited homecoming.
Endeavour is due to land tomorrow at 1:18 p.m. EST (1818 GMT) on a NASA runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to end a 16-day mission that delivered new additions – including a recycling system that converts urine and sweat into drinking water – to the International Space Station so it can accommodate larger, six-person crews next year.
The shuttle is also returning NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff to Earth after six months living aboard the space station. His replacement, fellow NASA spaceflyer Sandra Magnus, arrived at the station aboard Endeavour and will spend about 3 1/2 months aboard the orbiting lab as part of its three-person Expedition 18 crew.
"I just can't wait to see my family," Chamitoff said of his wife and twin toddlers just before leaving the station. "All my thoughts are there now."
Chamitoff and his crewmates will set up a special recumbent seat on Endeavour's middeck, which will allow him to return to Earth in a reclining position to better reacclimatize himself to gravity after months of weightlessness.
Set to return to Earth with Chamitoff are Endeavour commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Don Pettit, Steve Bowen, Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper and Shane Kimbrough. The astronauts shared a Thanksgiving lunch with the space station crew this week before undocking on Friday.
The astronauts will spend the day test firing Endeavour's rocket thrusters and readying the spacecraft's flight surfaces to once more fly through the Earth's atmosphere. They'll also deploy a small satellite, dubbed Picosat, aimed at testing new solar array technology.
During their 12 days docked at the station, the second-longest for a shuttle flight, they activated – then repaired – the new urine recycler, installed two spare bedrooms, a second kitchen and bathroom, extra gym equipment and a space food refrigerator.
They also performed a four-spacewalk marathon to clean and lubricate a vital solar array-turning gear on the station's starboard side. The gear is one of two that turn the space station's solar wings to always face the sun, but had been clogged for more than a year with metal shavings from grinding parts.
Tests earlier this week found the gear performing much better after the repairs, mission managers said.
"We set up a bar that was very high for the team, and everybody delivered," lead shuttle flight director Mike Sarafin said late Friday. "Now it's just a matter of getting Endeavour home."
NASA is providing live coverage of Endeavour's STS-126 mission on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's mission coverage and NASA TV feed.