Spaceshuttle Discovery astronauts entered the homestretch of their busyflight to the International Space Station Sunday and are packing up for their triphome later this week.
Theshuttle?s seven-astronaut crew planned to finish loading a portable cargo module withtons of trash and unneeded station equipment for the trip back to Earth. The astronauts launchedinto orbit Aug. 28 and wrapped up the last of three spacewalks to upgradethe space station late Saturday.
?We?recoming into the homestretch,? space station flight director Heather Rarick toldreporters early Sunday.
There are13 astronauts - a record-tying number - aboard the linked shuttle and station.In addition to Discovery?sseven astronauts, there are six spaceflyers on the station: two Americans,two Russians and one astronaut each from Canada and Belgium.
One trickytask on the astronauts? to-do list Sunday is a robotic arm maneuver to preparethe station for the arrival of Japan?s first unmanned cargo ship later thismonth. The station?s Canadian-built Canadarm2 robotic arm has a grapple deviceat each end that allows it to move end-over-end like an inchworm to reach differentparts of the station.
Japan?snew cargo ship is designed to be grabbed by the station?s arm when it arrivesat the outpost, but one of the robotic appendage?s grapple devices is a bitsticky, Rarick said. Astronauts planned to perform a so-called ?triplewalk-off? to move the arm several times so thatits non-sticky grapple end is outstretched to await the Japanese space freighter,she added.
Discovery?screw delivered just over 18,500 pounds (8,391 kg) of cargo to the spacestation, including fresh supplies, new science equipment and a space treadmillnamed after television comedianStephen Colbert. The astronauts will be returning more than 5,000 pounds (2,267kg) of unneeded items to Earth when they leave the station, NASAofficials have said.
The shuttlealso ferried NASA astronaut Nicole Stott to the station to begin a three-monthspace mission. She replaced fellow spaceflyer Tim Kopra as a member of thestation?s crew. Kopra has lived aboard the station for nearly two months andwill return home aboard Discovery.
Kopra toldreporters Sunday that he?s going to miss the space station, but is ready tocome home. Discovery is due to undock from the space station on Tuesday and land in Florida Thursday evening.
?I?m verymuch looking forward to seeing my family and getting back to life in general onthe planet,? Kopra said in a televised interview.
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SPACE.comis providing complete coverage of Discovery's STS-128 mission to theInternational Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik and Staff WriterClara Moskowitz in New York. Clickhere for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.