It's the final countdown
AN astronaut who was unable to join the crew of space shuttle Discovery's final flight after a bicycle crash, told his orbiting friends last night that he's with them "in spirit".
Timothy Kopra hobbled on crutches into Mission Control and called Discovery's six astronauts, congratulating them on "an awesome launch".
It was a brief and casual chat, taking place just as the astronauts began inspecting their ship for any signs of launch damage while en route to the International Space Station.
"Can't tell you how much we wish you were here with us," said Discovery's commander, Steven Lindsey.
Astronaut Michael Barratt teasingly confided that Mr Kopra was aboard the shuttle "in a little bit more than spirit, but we'll have to explain that when we get back".
"All right man, you keep watching us. . . let us know if we screw up," Mr Barratt added.
Astronaut Stephen Bowen stepped in to take Mr Kopra's place. NASA never had to replace a shuttle crew member so close to launch, and Mr Bowen had to train practically non-stop to get up to speed. He performed two spacewalks on the previous shuttle flight last May, and on Thursday became NASA's first astronaut to fly back-to-back missions.
As the crew's lead spacewalker, Mr Kopra (47) helped develop the procedures for next week's excursions outside the space station. He will assist with the spacewalks from Mission Control.
Still on a high from their dramatic lift-off, Discovery's astronauts spent their first full day in orbit operating a 30-metre laser-tipped rod to take a close look at the shuttle. At least four pieces of insulating foam peeled away from the external fuel tank during the launch and some of them apparently struck the shuttle.
Officials said the impacts were gentle, however, and posed no safety concern.
Discovery and its all-veteran crew -- along with Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space -- are due at the space station this afternoon.
Robonaut 2 will stay behind when the shuttle leaves.