CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – With their visit winding down, the world's 10 space travelers zipped up a huge shipping crate at the International Space Station on Wednesday for return to Earth aboard space shuttle Endeavour.
The astronauts can enjoy each others' company until Thanksgiving evening when the hatches between the linked station and shuttle will be sealed. Endeavour will pull away Friday morning and land Sunday.
To prepare for Endeavour's undocking, the astronauts used the space station's robot arm to latch onto the giant canister that carried up new equipment for the space station.
Among the home improvement items delivered 1 1/2 weeks ago: a bathroom, kitchenette, two bedrooms, exercise equipment and a system for converting astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water. All is needed to double the space station's population next year to six.
Working from inside, the astronauts grabbed onto the canister with the robot arm to lift it from the orbiting outpost for placement back aboard the shuttle. The container was loaded with nearly 2 tons of discarded equipment, trash and completed science experiments.
At Mission Control's request, the astronauts had left space in the crate for the urine-recycling machine, in case it broke again and needed to be brought back.
Thanks to the astronauts' tinkering, however, the processor continued to work fine, churning out plenty of samples to be brought back.
NASA wants to test the samples and run the equipment in orbit for at least three months before allowing anyone to drink the recycled stuff.
"Now we're not going to be drinking this today," shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson said, holding up the first batch of processed urine.
The astronauts laughed and described the process as turning "yesterday's coffee into today's coffee," and labeled a few bags as such.
In all, about seven liters of recycled urine and condensation will be returned. It will take at least a few weeks to analyze it, said flight director Holly Ridings.
On Thursday, the seven shuttle astronauts and three station residents will gather to share Thanksgiving turkey dinners and other holiday goodies at midday, before saying goodbye and closing the doors between their spacecraft. All but one is American.
It will be the last meal aboard the space station for Gregory Chamitoff, who's leaving after a six-month stay. Sandra Magnus replaced him; she'll spend 3 1/2 months up there.
Mission Control gave both crews the morning off Thursday so they could enjoy the holiday together.
Endeavour is scheduled to land Sunday afternoon. NASA added a 16th day to the flight to give the astronauts extra time to work on the balky urine processor.
A little before touchdown, a Russian unmanned cargo ship is scheduled to arrive at the space station, bearing Christmas presents, clothes, food, water and other supplies. The cargo ship blasted off from Kazakhstan on Wednesday.