Astronauts get busy with space station stockpiling

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - The International Space Station got a year’s worth of groceries in a giant shopping cart on Monday, courtesy of the astronauts on NASA’s final shuttle flight.

Astronauts Sandra Magnus and Douglas Hurley used the space station’s hulking robot arm to hoist the bus-size container out of Atlantis’ payload bay and attach it to the orbiting outpost.

The canister _ 21 feet long and 15 feet across _ is jammed with nearly 5 tons of household goods, enough to keep the 245-mile-high station and its inhabitants going for another year. Food alone accounted for more than 1 ton. Clothes also were stuffed inside the Italian-built cylinder, named Raffaello, as well as spare parts for the station.

“Take care and let us know if we can do anything from down here,” Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, a former space station resident, radioed from the European Space Agency’s control center in Germany.

“Ciao, buddy,” space station astronaut Michael Fossum replied.

Speeding ahead of schedule, the astronauts opened the hatch and entered Raffaello a few hours later; white bags were stacked high on all sides.

First on the unpacking list, so-called crew preference items, said flight director Jerry Jason. The six space station residents already received a bag of fresh fruit _ the shuttle astronauts hand-delivered that immediately after Sunday’s docking _ and were promised extra jars of peanut butter.

The astronauts got a triple dose of good news Monday.

NASA added an extra day to Atlantis’ visit; the shuttle flight will now last 13 days.

“These guys have been outstanding house guests. … they can stay as long as they want,” said space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr.

And there’s no longer any threat from a piece of menancing space junk.

On Sunday, flight controllers were worried a piece of space junk might pass dangerously close Tuesday, right in the middle of the lone spacewalk planned for the mission. But on Monday, experts said the object _ a piece of an old Soviet-era satellite _ would remain a safe 11 miles away and the shuttle-station complex would not need to dodge it.

Jason said Sunday’s docking by Atlantis actually bumped the joined vessels into an out-of-harm’s-way orbit.

Space junk is said to be the No. 1 threat facing the space station in the coming decade. More than 500,000 pieces of orbiting debris are being tracked, according to NASA. Two weeks ago, the space station residents had to seek shelter in their lifeboats when a piece of junk came within 1,100 feet _ the closest encounter yet.

In another bit of welcome news, a critical shuttle computer was back up and running normally again after being knocked offline just before Sunday’s linkup. Atlantis blasted off Friday, and is due back on Earth on July 21.

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