SPACE CENTER, Houston -- The space shuttle made a long overdue trash pickup at the international space station yesterday, the first one in 2 1/2 years.
The Discovery astronauts hoisted a giant garbage can holding 5,000 pounds of broken machines, discarded equipment, empty food cartons, and other junk into the shuttle's cargo hold.
It was one of the last chores before the shuttle pulls away from the station today after more than a week of linked flight.
The two space station occupants were glad to get rid of the stuff because it left them with a much tidier, and more spacious, home. One of them, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, said before Discovery arrived that the place looked as messy as Russia's old Mir station.
It was the first trash pickup by a shuttle since the end of 2002. The Columbia disaster in early 2003 prevented shuttles from returning to the space station until now, forcing the resident crews to rely on the much smaller and less frequent Russian supply ships for garbage disposal.
The shuttle's latest grounding, which was caused by the foam loss during Discovery's launch, could mean another trash pileup in the station.
Discovery took up some 3,000 pounds of badly needed station supplies, such as prepackaged meals and spare parts, in the massive canister. Once it was attached to the space station and emptied, it was filled to capacity with all the discarded station objects and placed back aboard the shuttle, with the help of a robot arm.
NASA, meanwhile, still does not know what caused a 1-pound chunk of foam insulation to break off Discovery's external fuel tank during liftoff. The tank was redesigned following the 2003 Columbia tragedy, but no improvements were made to the area where the foam came loose. Unlike with Columbia, which was hit in the wing, this foam chunk missed Discovery.
Space station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier, who is leading the investigation, said he expects to get his first technical briefing on the matter Tuesday.
All future space shuttle flights are grounded until NASA discovers the cause of the problem and a solution.