The crews of the shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station offered emotional goodbyes to one another on Sunday, retreated to their respective spacecraft and closed the hatches -- a prelude to the storied orbiter's departure and descent to Earth for the final time.
Station commander Scott Kelly, left, the rest of his green-shirted crew and the Discovery astronauts, in blue shirts, gather in the U. S. Destiny lab module to bid one another farewell. Photo Credit/NASA TV
The hatches were secured just before 4 p.m., EST.
"It was a pleasure to be here. We appreciate your hospitality," Discovery commander Steve Lindsey told station skipper Scott Kelly and his crew. "We had a great time, and we will miss you guys."
Kelly reciprocated, and offered a special word to Discovery, which is ending her 39th and final trip to space and her 13th voyage to the space station.
"We will miss you," said Kelly. "Most of all we will miss Discovery. Discovery has been a great shuttle, has really supported the International Space Station. We wish her fair winds and following seas."
Before they separated, the shuttle astronauts made good use of the station's weightless roominess to play "hamster wheel" by somersaulting between the the walls as they hustled the last transfers aboard the shuttle -- frozen medical specimens and the bulky suits worn during two spacewalks.
Discovery astronauts Al Drew, left, and Nicole Stott, right, play "hamster wheel" with station commander Scott Kelly, center. Discovery's Steve Bowen watches in the background. Photo credit/NASA TV
Lindsey's crew, pilot Eric Boe, Mike Barratt, Nicole Stott, Al Drew and Steve Bowen, will undock on Monday at 7 a.m., EST, ending an exceptionally productive visit that was extended from seven to nine days.
After backing out to a distance of 600 feet, Boe will steer Discovery around the station while his colleagues photograph and videotape the orbiting science lab, which with the exception of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and an external tool platform, is essentially at assembly complete.
The departing imagery will furnish station engineers with a snapshot of the outpost's external structural soundness. Then, quickly, Lindsey's crew will begin a second survey of Discovery's fragile heat shielding using a camera and laser-tipped boom in the grasp of the shuttle's robot arm.
As imagery experts in Mission Control examine the imagery for evidence of impact damage to the wings, nose cap and underside thermal armoring, the shuttle astronauts will check out their flight control and communications systems for the high-speed descent to Earth.
Discovery is due back at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday at 11:58 a.m., EST. Sunday's long-range weather outlook from the Spaceflight Meteorology Group for the Florida shuttle port showed a windy, but "go" forecast. Thursday's outlook includes a chance for lightning.
The shuttle crew delivered a new equipment module, the last pressurized compartment of the station's U.S. segment, an external spare parts platform and 10,000 pounds of internal supplies. Over two spacewalks, Discovery's crew gave the orbital outpost a spring cleaning that included the retrieval of a failed thermal control system pump.
The station awaits one and possibly two more shuttle visits. Endeavour is expected in late April with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $2 billion astronomical observatory. In late June or early July, Atlantis may appear with a final load of supplies and a carrier to retrieve the failed pump motor.