HOUSTON - Seven astronauts are just one month away from rocketing towards the International Space Station (ISS) aboard NASA's Discovery orbiter and are eagerly awaiting their orbital construction mission.
"We are ready to go," said veteran astronaut Mark Polansky, commander of Discovery's STS-116 mission, in a press briefing here at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Polansky and his STS-116 crew are set to launch towards the ISS on Dec. 7 at 9:35:42 p.m. EDT (0235:42 Dec. 8 GMT) to deliver a new piece of the ISS, rewire the orbital laboratory's electrical grid and activate the station's primary cooling system.
Joining Polansky on the planned 12-day mission is a diverse crew that includes shuttle pilot William Oefelein--Alaska's first astronaut--and mission specialists Robert Curbeam, Nicholas Patrick, Joan Higginbotham, Sunita Williams and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, Sweden's first spaceflyer. While all seven have spent years training for spaceflight, only Polansky and Curbeam--who flew together during NASA's STS-98 mission to deliver the space station's U.S. Destiny laboratory--have spent any time in Earth orbit.
"I can't wait to see the smiles on the faces of five people being on orbit for the first time," Polansky said, adding that the mission has been a longtime coming for rookies like Fuglesang, who joined the ESA astronaut ranks in 1992. "There are people who have waited a very long time."
The STS-116 mission will mark NASA's third shuttle flight of 2006--the second this year dedicated to ISS construction--and is the first mission since the 2003 Columbia accident scheduled to launch at night. NASA's first three post-Columbia accident missions each launched in daylight to allow a clear view of any debris shed by shuttle external tanks.
But after NASA's successful summer daylight launches of Discovery and Atlantis during the STS-121 and STS-115 missions, respectively, with acceptable fuel tank performances, the space agency and its astronauts are again ready to press ahead with night space shots. In-flight orbiter heat shield inspections are now standard, lending more confidence to NASA's ability to detect any shuttle damage that may occur from debris shed during a night launch, mission managers said.
"Day, night, dusk or dawn, it just doesn't matter to a flight engineer," said Curbeam, who will aid Polansky and Oefelein during the eight and a half minute launch into space. "All that matters to me is that the gauges are lit well enough to see where they are."
Curbeam and several other STS-116 crewmembers originally expected to launch their mission in mid-2003, but were delayed following the loss of Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew. Since then, NASA has made extensive shuttle and fuel tank safety enhancements and launched three orbiter flights since its STS-114 return to flight in 2005. The space agency plans at least 14 more orbiter flights to complete the ISS by September 2010, when it plans to retire its three-orbiter fleet.
"I don't ever consider it business as usual. What we do is very hard, it's difficult," said Higginbotham, who has waited about 10 years for her first spaceflight. "But it is good to see us back launching shuttles more routinely than we have for the last two years."
No less than three spacewalks are planned during STS-116, during which spacewalkers will help install a new Port 5 truss spacer segment to the portside end of the ISS, plug the outpost into its primary electrical grid and activate a long dormant cooling system. The astronauts are also hauling a series of spare parts and other cargo to the ISS inside Discovery's cargo bay.
Discovery is also ferrying Williams, who will work alongside Curbeam in the third STS-116 spacewalk, to the ISS, where she will relieve Expedition 14 flight engineer Thomas Reiter and take his place as a member of the station's crew. She will join Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Tyurin--who arrived at the ISS in September--than stay on as part of the station's Expedition 15 mission.
"I really wish they could all stay with me up there," Williams said of her STS-116 crewmates. "But we'll be in touch."
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