Astronauts are making a final push to prepare a new module for the crew of the International Space Station and make needed repairs to a key piece of station hardware before the space shuttle Discovery and its six-member crew bid a final farewell to the orbiting outpost on Monday.
When asked about the mission's status as Discovery's last, crew members typically have replied that they are focused on accomplishing the mission's tasks and haven't given much thought to the milestone.
But as Discovery's departure approaches and crew members come closer to wrapping up their tasks, it's clear they are giving the orbiter's curtain call more thought.
Describing moments when he could look out on the orbiter from the space station's cupola, shuttle commander Steven Lindsey allowed during a press conference on Friday that reflecting on Discovery's record – a cumulative year in orbit from 39 missions in 27 years of operation – "is kind of bittersweet and quite frankly sad knowing that when we land, that will be it for this vehicle."
"It's going to be hard to walk away from Discovery on the runway that day," added mission specialist Nicole Stott.
In the meantime, however, the combined crews of the station and shuttle will be working hard to minimize the amount of loose ends the station crew will have to tie up after Discovery leaves. Indeed, mission managers extended the shuttle crew's stay at the station by two days to keep the outfitting and maintenance processes moving in high gear.
With some 90 percent of the cargo transfers to and from the shuttle complete, astronauts will spend much of the day Saturday organizing the new storage module and clearing it of trash – the hardware that protected its cargo from the rigors of launch.
In addition, some crew members will be clearing Japan's unmanned cargo carrier, which now serves as a trash bin, of supplies it brought in order to make way for the refuse from the module, dubbed the Permanent Multipurpose Module.
And different teams will be making repairs to US-supplied equipment that helps provide oxygen for station crews to breath and scrubs the air free of carbon dioxide the crew exhales.
Technicians at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida did quite a packing job. They set the 'bot's arms up as if Robonaut 2 was performing curls with a dumbbell, placed it in a metal container, then enclosed the container in a form-fitting, thick Styrofoam shell.
Trash to burn up on reentry
The crew will remove the shell so it can join other refuse in the Japanese cargo carrier, whose stay at the station also is winding down. At the end of March, Japan's module will undock. The craft and refuse it carries will be destroyed on reentry.
Space-station crew members aren't scheduled to set up the humanoid robot, consisting of an upper torso, head, arms, and hands, for at least another week.
While the robot may be hidden from view, however, it's not hidden from the imagination.
In a good-natured exchange during a phone call President Obama placed to the space station on Thursday, the nation's First Geek asked after the bronze-helmeted helpmate for future space-station crews.
When Commander Lindsey explained that the robot was still in its cocoon, the president replied, "He's still in packing foam? That's a shame, man! He flew all that way and you're not unpacking him?"
"The poor guy's been locked in that foam for about four months now," replied shuttle commander Steve Lindsey. "Every once in a while we hear some scratching sounds from inside. Maybe even: Let me out, let me out; but we're not sure."