Shuttle Discovery undocks from the space station
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: December 19, 2006
The space shuttle Discovery undocked from the international space station today after a successful four-spacewalk visit to re-wire the outpost and prepare it for arrival of European and Japanese research modules over the next two years.
Sailing through space at five miles per second 220 miles above the Indian Ocean, hooks and latches locking the shuttle's docking system to the station disengaged at 5:10 p.m. and Discovery eased away from the lab complex.
"Discovery. Departing," station commander Mike Lopez-Alegria, a Navy captain, said as the shuttle moved away, ringing a ship's bell in the Destiny laboratory module.
With pilot William Oefelien at the controls, Discovery moved out in front of the station and then looped up to a point 600 feet directly overhead before thruster firings to depart the area.
"We have completed the sep one burn," shuttle commander Mark Polansky radioed. "And for (space station) Alpha from the crew of Discovery: we wish you smooth sailing. Thank you for the hospitality and hard work and we hope you enjoy the new electrical system on board station."
As the shuttle slowly separated, observers in the eastern United States saw the two as "a fast-moving, bright, white star" in the early evening sky, according to an observer in Chappaqua, N.Y. "It was as bright as Venus but looked larger," he said.
Considered the most complex shuttle mission ever flown, Discovery's crew added an extension to the station's main solar array truss and activated the lab's permanent electrical system. They also staged a dramatic, unplanned spacewalk Monday to complete the retraction of a balky solar array.
"This mission, which I think we will all declare successful, was very much the result of the hard work that was put in by the teams on the ground," Lopez-Alegria told flight controllers during a brief farewell ceremony earlier today. "I think we acted as your 'end effectors,' if you will. You guys did all the thinking and we just did it. And we want to thank you for letting us participate in what we think was a great step forward in human space flight."
Said Polansky: "It's always a goal to try and leave some place in better shape than it was when you came and I think we've accomplished that due to everyone's hard work. And so with that, I hope we're really on our way to a great start for assembly completion."
After a final round of hugs and handshakes, the Discovery astronauts floated out of the Destiny module and the last hatch between the shuttle and the station was closed at 2:42 p.m.
Here is the schedule for the rest of the day (in EST and mission elapsed time):
EST........DD...HH...MM...EVENT 05:10 PM...09...20...22...UNDOCKING 06:12 PM...09...21...25...Crew meals begin 06:42 PM...09...21...55...Station docking port depressurized 07:12 PM...09...22...25...Group B computer powerdown 07:37 PM...09...22...50...Undocking video playback 08:00 PM...09...23...13...Mission status briefing on NASA TV 11:47 PM...10...03...00...Shuttle crew sleep begins 12:00 AM...10...03...13...Daily video highlights reel on NASA TV 07:47 AM...10...11...00...Crew wakeup
Joining Polansky, Oefelein, Robert Curbeam, Christer Fuglesang, Nicholas Patrick and Joan Higginbotham for the trip home is Thomas Reiter, a European Space Agency astronaut who was launched to the station aboard Discovery last July. He was replaced aboard the station by Sunita "Suni" Williams, a NASA astronaut who was ferried to the outpost by Polansky and company.
"I just want to say to Thomas, I hope Discovery takes you home as smoothly and safely as it brought me here," Williams said before the shuttle crew departed.
Lopez-Alegria captured the moment for the combined crews, saying "So with that we bid a bitter-sweet farewell to Discovery. We had a wonderful time with you guys, it was really a pleasure, I can't think of a motto that describes the way we did things other than 'work hard and play hard,' although there wasn't very much play time.
"It's now time to turn the page and with that, we'd like to welcome aboard Suni to our crew. I want to keep it brief because most of her runway is still way out in front of her and as we like to say, it's good to pace yourself. Suni is going to add a completely different dimension but I'm sure we'll continue in Thomas' tradition of professionalism."
Discovery's crew plans to carry out a final heat shield inspection Wednesday before packing up Thursday for a landing attempt Friday afternoon.
The shuttle only has enough hydrogen and oxygen for its electricity producing fuel cells to stay in orbit until Saturday at the latest. When only two landing days are available, NASA's flight rules require a landing attempt on the first day, if possible, at either the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., or White Sands Space Harbor, N.M.
The preliminary forecast calls for a chance of low clouds and rain in Florida and slightly high crosswinds at Edwards on Friday. While White Sands is currently "go" Friday, NASA wants to avoid a New Mexico landing if at all possible because the equipment needed to ready the ship for its ferry flight back to Florida would have to be shipped in.
While it typically takes a week to 10 days to get a shuttle back from Edwards, engineers estimate up to 45 days or so would be needed to return Discovery from White Sands.
Discovery originally was scheduled to land Thursday, but the docked portion of the flight was extended one day to add the solar array retraction spacewalk. Given the extra day, the only way to get Discovery down on Thursday was to eliminate the final heat shield inspection. But NASA's Mission Management Team decided to stick with the inspection and landing was pushed to Friday.
Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale said in an interview with CBS News on Monday he agreed with the importance of conducting the so-called late inspection of the heat shield. But he hopes it won't result in a landing in California or New Mexico.
"We worked very hard to get this vehicle off early so we could get it down on the ground to give everybody off Christmas," he said. "And now by extending a day, and certainly if we land out west, we're going to have about 350 folks that are not just going to have to work Christmas but be 3,000 miles away from their families for a couple of weeks around Christmas.
"I really wanted to give folks the holiday with their families and I sure hope it works out that way because of workforce morale, the tension, you know, esprit de corps kind of thing. When I tell my wife I'm going to have to go to California to be with them on Christmas day," Hale joked, "I may be looking for a new place to live.
But, he said, "that is all secondary to safely wrapping up this flight. We'll do what we've got to do. ... I have to tell you there are a lot of folks who think (late inspection) is really extraordinarily critical. I haven't quite gone to that level, but we're evolving in our thinking. The crew office has been very strong in desiring a late inspection."