WASHINGTON - Seven astronauts are gearing up to launch toward the International Space Station next month to deliver a final piece of the outpost?s power grid, the last major American-built addition to the orbiting laboratory.
The spaceflyers are slated to lift off aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Feb. 12 from NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to deliver the last starboard piece of the space station?s metallic backbone-like truss and unfurl a pair of expansive U.S. solar wings from its tip.
The new addition is the fourth set of U.S. solar arrays to feed the station?s electrical grid and will give the orbital laboratory a wingspan that will rival an American football field in length once attached. The starboard-side wings will also make the station an even brighter target for skywatchers on Earth hoping to glimpse the outpost?s path across the night sky.
?It?s the start, for us, to a very exciting year,? NASA shuttle program manager John Shannon told reporters on Friday.
Commanded by veteran spaceflyer Lee Archambault, Discovery?s STS-119 mission is NASA?s first of up to six planned shuttle flights for 2009. They include one final flight to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope and a series of space station construction missions.
?We?re of course very proud to be on this mission.? said Archambault, who added that he helped give the space station a symmetrical look during his first spaceflight in 2007, which also delivered new solar wings. ?Since then NASA has unbalanced it, so we?re getting a chance to balance it again.?
Four spacewalks are planned to install the 32,000-pound (14,514-kg) starboard-side solar arrays and upgrade the station?s exterior during Discovery?s flight.
Three spaceflight rookies and four veterans make up Archambault?s crew. The crew includes teachers-turned-astronauts Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold II, as well veteran astronaut Koichi Wakata, a two-time spaceflyer for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who will become Japan?s first long-duration astronaut when he joins the space station?s Expedition 18 crew during Discovery?s two-week mission.
Wakata helped install the first section of the space station?s 11-segment main truss back in 2000 during his last spaceflight. Now he?ll help attach its final piece, then stay aboard to take charge of the outpost?s Japanese Kibo laboratory.
Discovery may also carry a spare part of the space station?s new water recycling system, an intricate - and sometimes icky - assembly that filters astronaut wastewater, sweat and urine back into drinking water.
Astronauts installed the recycling system aboard the station last November despite glitches with a balky urine distillation component. That component failed again just before Christmas. Engineers and astronauts are trying to revive the device, but would need the spare from Earth if they fail, said NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini.
The urine recycler is part of a $250 million life support system that must work if the space station is to sustain larger, six-person crews for the long-term.
Suffredini said he is confident that engineers will overcome the urine recycler?s glitches and have a spare ready in time if required. Even if the unit is not operational by May, the space station can still support the jump to six-person crews with the help water shipments aboard NASA shuttles this year, he added.
2009 is expected to bring the space station to the brink of completion. In addition to Discovery?s February flight and the planned Hubble Space Telescope flight in mid-May, NASA space shuttles are expected to deliver the final segment of Japan?s Kibo laboratory this summer, a vital batch of spare parts and supplies and a new connecting node and viewport.
?Last year was a banner year for the station and a huge success,? Suffredini said. ?This year will be no less exciting.?
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