HOUSTON – To Dominic Gorie, commander of the shuttle Endeavour, spaceflight has a lot in common with competing in the NCAA basketball tournament.
So far his crew has muscled through a daunting to-do list, including five spacewalks to build a giant robot and install the first segment of a Japanese lab. But the championship would be a safe landing back at Kennedy Space Center.
"We've won the first five games," Gorie said. "We've got a couple more to go for undocking and landing, but we've got a great winning team. I'm really, really happy with them."
Endeavour's crew is scheduled to close the hatches between their ship and the international space station on Monday afternoon as they prepare for undocking a few hours later. The shuttle is scheduled to land in Florida on Wednesday night.
Although shuttle crews often wish for more time at the orbiting complex, astronaut Michael Foreman said some his colleagues were ready to wrap up their record-setting mission.
Endeavour blasted off on March 11 to begin the longest planned shuttle flight to the space station ever. The five spacewalks set another record for a space station construction mission.
"We've had a really great time up here," Foreman said. "But, yeah, I think a few of us are thinking about getting back to planet Earth."
French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who will fly home aboard Endeavour after spending about a month and a half in space, had mixed emotions about leaving orbit.
"Of course, I would have loved to stay longer in the station, but I think it's time for me to go back," said Eyharts, who helped set up Europe's new Columbus lab and was replaced on the station crew by astronaut Garrett Reisman.
Astronauts devoted most of the mission's first three spacewalks to assembling the robot, named Dextre. The fourth spacewalk focused on testing a method for repairing damaged shuttle thermal tiles, while the fifth involved stowing an inspection boom on the station.
Dextre, a Canadian Space Agency contribution that cost more than $200 million, is designed to help spacewalkers and could eventually take over some of their chores.
The Japanese compartment will serve as a sort of storage closet for the new Kibo lab, which is set to be delivered by the shuttle Discovery in May.