Shuttle crew become astro furniture movers

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The Independent Online

Astronauts hitched a giant chest of drawers to the international space station that contained a brand new freezer, sleeping compartment and treadmill bearing a TV comedian's name.

The Italian-built chest - nicknamed Leonardo, as in Leonardo da Vinci - was moved from space shuttle Discovery via a hefty robot arm and hoisted onto the space station.

It's loaded with nearly 8 tons of equipment and science experiments for the orbiting outpost and its six residents. Much of the gear is stored in portable racks; the bedroom is the size of a phone booth.

Leonardo will remain secured to the space station for the next week. The astronauts will remove the cylindrical vessel - 6.5 metres long and 4.6 metres in diameter - and place it back on space shuttle Discovery for return to Earth. By that time, it will be loaded with trash and unneeded items.

Nasa's brand new $5 million treadmill - officially called the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT for short - is in pieces and will need to be assembled after Discovery leaves.

The TV comedian ended up with an exercise machine named in his honour after he won an online vote for christening rights to a space station room. Unwilling to go with Colbert for the yet-to-be-launched room, Nasa opted for Tranquility to commemorate the Apollo 11 moon landing 40 years ago this summer. The treadmill was a consolation prize.

Shuttle astronaut Jose Hernandez will oversee Leonardo's unloading operation. He is filing regular Twitter updates from orbit, the first astronaut to do so in two languages, English and Spanish.

"Met our 6 neighbours & they seem nice!" Hernandez wrote.

Besides his bilingual tweets, Hernandez is taking part in several Spanish-language interviews during the mission. "I'm just happy to be able to share my experiences," said Hernandez, a Mexican-American who is the son of migrant workers. He grew up working the fields in California alongside his parents, two brothers and sister.

Next up for the 13 space travellers - seven on the shuttle and six on the station - is the first spacewalk of their joint mission.

The space station's newest inhabitant, Nicole Stott, will venture out on Tuesday evening with Danny Olivas to remove a depleted ammonia tank.

A fresh tank will be installed as part of the space station cooling system during spacewalk No. 2 on Thursday night. In all, three spacewalks are planned.

Stott carried over six mice in an enclosed container overnight. The mice are part of a bone loss study and will return to Earth with her in November, aboard shuttle Atlantis.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Nasa's mission management team, LeRoy Cain, delivered some good news Monday: Discovery's thermal shielding looks to be in good shape and should soon be cleared for re-entry, currently scheduled for 10 September.

Flight controllers, meanwhile, are looking at fuel-efficient ways to move the shuttle-station complex over the coming week. Discovery's tiny steering jets are unusable because of a leak.