With the mission finally coming to a close, Discovery's commander acknowledged Tuesday she was "extremely concerned" about the safety of the spacewalker who went out to fix the space station's ripped solar wing.
And the spacewalker, Scott Parazynski, said he barely managed to reach the tangled wires that had snagged the wing. If the damage had been just another foot away, "it would have been a Plan B or C or D," he told The Associated Press. "I don't know what it would have been."
As they prepared for an early Wednesday afternoon landing, the seven astronauts recalled for the AP the dramatic highlight of their 15-day space station construction mission.
Saturday's emergency repair of the torn wing at the international space station was an unprecedented and daring feat whipped up by flight controllers in just a few days.
Discovery's commander, Pamela Melroy, described how nervous she was when Parazynski approached the torn wing on the end of a 90-foot robotically operated boom.
"You may have heard me at one point kind of squeak out 'Be careful' as I saw the solar array coming toward him," Melroy said. She got more comfortable as she saw him do just that, and she took comfort that another spacewalker was watching the wing "like a hawk" from its base and calling out the clearances.
Parazynski said he could have used another pair of hands once he got right up to the solar wing, which was coursing with more than 100 volts of electricity. He had to stabilize the wing as it swayed back and forth, using a hockey-like stick wrapped with insulating tape. He figured out a way to hold the stick and another tool in one hand, while using his other hand to loop homemade braces into the wing.
It was like nothing he'd ever experienced on previous spacewalks or in the pool where astronauts train. No one, in fact, had ever been so far away from the safe confines of the space station before.
"It was an unbelievably long distance away," he said. "You never come face to face with a solar array, so it was a very unique experience."
Parazynski said he was energized by the wake-up music that was beamed up that morning courtesy of his 10-year-old son, Luke — the theme from the movie, "Star Wars."
The lightsaber that was used by the character Luke Skywalker in the 1983 sequel "Return of the Jedi" is flying aboard Discovery, to mark the 30th anniversary of the original film.
"All of us have been really dying to get into the lower holds of the ship and dig out the lightsaber," Parazynski said. "But it really would be a lot of work, I think, and I think Pam would frown upon it."
Discovery also is bringing back some samples of the steel shavings that are clogging a rotary joint needed to turn another set of solar wings at the space station, as well as an astronaut who spent five months there, Clayton Anderson.
Anderson said he can't wait to cook up his "special secret recipe" to go with a medium-rare steak once he's back home in Houston with his family. He's also craving ice-cold drinks and ice cream, unavailable in space.
"It's kind of a bittersweet time for me to come home, but I'm ready," he said.
Flight director Bryan Lunney said Discovery may be visible from the ground as it descends across the Midwest and South on its way to Kennedy Space Center. It will be the first coast-to-coast re-entry by a space shuttle since the destruction of Columbia nearly five years ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, Discovery's heat shield was declared intact and the ship safe for re-entry.