published Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Astronauts getting time off in space, finally

  • photo
    This image provided by NASA shows a high angle view of the Cupola, backdropped against the darkness of space and Earth's horizon, and some components of the International Space Station. The astronauts making NASA's last shuttle flight turned into moving men and garbage haulers Wednesday July 13, 2011 with no time to dwell on their place in space history, after enjoying a special salute from the original "Rocket Man," Elton John.(AP Photo/NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After a hectic week in orbit, the astronauts on NASA's last space shuttle flight got some time off Thursday to savor their historic experience.

"This is one of the first days we've been able to take a deep breath and appreciate what we're doing up here," said space shuttle Atlantis' commander, Christopher Ferguson.

The 10 astronauts aboard the linked Atlantis and International Space Station lingered over the "all-American meal" of grilled chicken and barbecued beef brisket that NASA packed for them, complete with baked beans and Hostess apple pie.

NASA urged the public to share in the virtual dinner, publishing the recipes online in advance.

In a series of TV interviews, Ferguson said the space station delivery mission was going well and that the back-and-forth cargo hauling was three-quarters completed.

Atlantis was performing flawlessly, he noted.

"Atlantis is purring like a kitten," he said. "I think she's about 25 years or so old, but she performs just like a newborn."

Atlantis first rocketed into orbit in 1985. This is its 33rd flight and the 135th shuttle mission overall. Atlantis will join Discovery and Endeavour in retirement, following its landing next week.

Atlantis delivered nearly 5 tons of food, clothes and other household goods in a giant canister to the International Space Station — an entire year's worth of supplies. NASA wants the orbiting lab well stocked in case private companies fall behind in their effort to take over shuttle supply runs. The first such commercial flight is expected by year's end.

While the unmanned cargo ships are smaller than NASA's shuttles, Ferguson pointed out there are many more of them, launching from all over the world. But the craft burn up in the atmosphere after they undock.

"From a return standpoint, bringing things back from the space station and getting them to Earth, we're going to miss the space shuttle," he said.

Atlantis, for instance, will return more than 7,000 pounds of discarded equipment and trash from the space station, freeing up much needed room. Engineers will take apart some of the broken machinery to see what went wrong and, hopefully, learn from the mistakes.

Astronaut Sandra Magnus — who spent more than four months on the space station a few years back — said she's amazed at how much bigger it is now that it's finished. She said she sometimes thinks: "Wow, look what we did. We built this huge, huge, monster laboratory orbiting the Earth, with cooperation from countries all over the world."

For the second day in a row, the four shuttle astronauts and six space station inhabitants began their day with a celebrity salute. On Wednesday, it was Elton John. On Thursday, it was Michael Stipe, lead singer for rock band R.E.M. In a prerecorded message, Stipe sang an abbreviated "a cappella" version of the band's 1992 song, "Man on the Moon."

Three of the space station crew, meanwhile, marked their 100th day in space Thursday: Ronald Garan Jr. and Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev. They will remain on board until September.

Atlantis' trip, by comparison, is a scant 13 days. It will undock Tuesday and aim for a Florida homecoming Thursday to close out the 30-year shuttle program.

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