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Sunita bids adieu to Discovery

Six of the the space shuttle crew ready to return to earth, leaving the Indian American at her new home amid stars.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2006 11:52 IST

Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams bid farewell to her six companions on space shuttle Discovery as they prepared to return to earth with a new passenger instead, leaving her at her new home amid the stars.

The shuttle crew floated around in zero gravity to hug Williams and her two co-tenants on the international space station and posed for a group picture before entering Discovery.

"Better go or we'll never leave," shuttle commander Mark Polansky told station skipper Michael Lopez-Alegria as he made his way to a connecting tunnel between Discovery and the space station.

"It has been a very exciting time, so it's obviously hard to let go," said Germany's Thomas Reiter, who is returning aboard Discovery after nearly six months on the station with Williams taking his place.

The hatches closed between the two vehicles at 3.41.12 am IST on Wednesday. Then the two crews conducted leak checks before Discovery undocked, ending an eight-day stay - one day more than planned.

Then Pilot Bill Oefelein guided the shuttle through a partial fly-around of the space station before firing shuttle jets to begin the final separation from the station and the trip back home.

Discovery is scheduled to land at 2.26 am IST on Saturday (8.56 pm GMT on Friday) at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The Discovery crew had a busy stay at the station. They installed a new segment to the station's metal backbone during the first of four spacewalks and delivered shields to better protect the station's living quarters against micrometeoroid strikes.

The next two spacewalks, including one by Williams, were devoted to the rewiring of the station's newly installed power system so laboratories built by Europe and Japan can be added.

A fourth spacewalk was added to allow the crew to retract solar arrays that had folded improperly. NASA originally allotted three to four hours for the job, which engineers had hoped to accomplish by remote command. Instead, the work spanned four days.

Finally veteran astronaut Robert Curbeam ventured outside for a record fourth time during a single mission. He improvised with tools that had been wrapped in insulating tape to prevent electric shocks and worked in areas never intended for an astronaut's glove. Sweden's Christer Fuglesang accompanied Curbeam on three spacewalks and Williams was Curbeam's partner for one.

The US space agency is under a firm deadline to finish the $100 billion International Space Station by 2010 when the shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired. At least 13 more missions are needed to complete assembly.

The extra day in space to fix the panel forced NASA to make a difficult choice - give up a final check of the shuttle's heat shield, or use one of two days' emergency supplies reserved for landing delays due to poor weather or equipment problems.

Managers opted to dip into the reserves but mobilised backup landing sites in California and New Mexico, in addition to the shuttle's prime runway in Florida, for landing attempts on Friday.