Astronauts put cargo carrier back on space shuttle

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL With their space station visit drawing to a close, the shuttle astronauts finally got the carrier -- and its 2 1/2-ton load of trash and discarded equipment -- into Discovery's payload bay. The job was supposed to be completed Thursday, but problems with the latching system for the carrier delayed its removal from the International Space Station.

The trouble dragged on so late Thursday that Mission Control let all 13 astronauts sleep in Friday morning.

Soon after they awoke, Stephanie Wilson and Japan's Naoko Yamazaki used the space station's hefty robot arm to transport the 21-foot carrier the final short distance. The arm and carrier had been parked near the payload bay overnight.

"Good job, ladies," astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger said once the carrier was securely in place.

Then Metcalf-Lindenburger and her colleagues powered up the shuttle robot arm to inspect Discovery's wings and nose. The four-hour procedure normally is conducted following undocking. But the failure of the shuttle's main antenna, way back on launch day April 5, prompted NASA to move up the operation so that all the mega files of images could be transmitted from the space station.

NASA wants to be certain the shuttle's heat shield did not suffer any damage from space junk that could jeopardize its return to Earth. Discovery is due to leave the station Saturday and land in Florida on Monday.

The astronauts had to watch out for all the space station pieces protruding every which way, as they used a 100-foot, laser-tipped boom to scrutinize the shuttle. NASA officials said the job was tricky because of the tight clearances -- in some places just 1 1/2 feet. But there were lots of good views from inside to help the crew avoid hitting the station.

This procedure already was in development for one of the three remaining shuttle flights.

Discovery will make the final flight in September and take back up the cargo carrier, filled with one last load of supplies and equipment. Then, the carrier will be left permanently attached to the space station, to serve as an extra closet. The Italian-built chamber is named Leonardo, as in da Vinci.

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