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Discovery to-do list: build COLBERT, lug huge coolant tank

The comparatively low-key mission, scheduled to launch at 1:36 a.m. Tuesday, marks the winding down of the space shuttle program.

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The space shuttle Discovery sits atop Launch Pad 39A during final launch preparations at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Monday.

Scott Audette/ Reuters

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For the space-shuttle program, Tuesday's early morning scheduled launch of Discovery and its seven-member crew to the International Space Station marks a final bend in the road toward retirement.

With one exception, the seven remaining missions focus on the detail work needed to ensure the space station's long-term operation once the shuttles are grounded.

Discovery astronaut Nichole Stott provides an indicator that for the shuttles, the end is near. Ms. Stott is bound for a nearly four-month stay aboard the station. She will be the last space-station crew member who will arrive and depart via the space shuttle.

Another indicator: With mostly interior work and some exterior maintenance remaining on the to-do list, this mission doesn't face the same intense pressure to do things in a specific order, as with past flights, notes Mike Moses, who chairs the mission management team.

But the mission "is challenging in its own regard," he adds.

Discovery's crew is hauling nearly seven tons of food and other crew supplies, hardware, and spare parts for the station itself, as well as large racks of lab equipment and experiments.

Among the hardware: a treadmill whose acronym spells out comedian Stephen Colbert's last name. The talk show host had asked viewers to participate in a NASA competition to name one last space station module. Instead of hewing to the NASA-approved suggestions – Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise, and Venture – they nominated "Colbert," which won the vote. NASA stepped in, choosing to name the node "Tranquility," but sportingly dubbed its new treadmill the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT).

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