Shuttle Discovery's Next Astronaut Crew Examines Spacecraft
A technician (left) goes over details with STS-116 mission specialist Joan Higginbotham (second left), Expedition 14 flight engineer Sunita Williams (center) and STS-116 mission specialist Nicholas Patrick during a Crew Equipment Interface Test.
Credit: NASA/KSC.

Seven astronauts are getting up close and personal with NASA's shuttle Discovery this week as engineers ready the space plane's boosters and fuel tank for flight.

Discovery's STS-116 astronauts, commanded by shuttle flight veteran Mark Polansky, are at NASA's Florida-based Kennedy Space Center (KSC) spaceport poring over their orbiter, its cargo and the tools they will use during a planned December mission to rewire the power grid aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Jessica Rye, a NASA spokesperson at KSC, said the astronauts were set to examine Discovery's heat shield, payload bay, crew cabin and windows during a multi-day Crew Equipment Interface Test (CEIT).

The astronauts are set to launch no earlier than Dec. 7 at 9:38 p.m. EST (0238 Dec. 8 GMT) to haul a Spacehab module and the new Port 5 section of the space station's main truss to the orbital laboratory, where they will stage three spacewalks to wire two recently installed solar arrays into the ISS power grid.

While Polansky and his STS-116 crew looked over Discovery in the shuttle's Orbiter Processing Facility, engineers in NASA's massive Vehicle Assembly Building connected the spacecraft's 15-story external tank to the two solid rocket boosters that will help launch the astronauts spaceward.

"We mated the external tank and boosters early this morning," NASA spokesperson Bruce Buckingham told

Polansky, STS-116 pilot William Oefelein and mission specialists Joan Higginbotham, Nicholas Patrick, Robert Curbeam, Christer Fugelsang - of the European Space Agency - and ISS flight engineer Sunita Williams arrived at KSC over Wednesday and Thursday. Their CEIT training session ends on Saturday.

NASA's STS-116 mission will mark the agency's third shuttle flight in 2006 and the second this year dedicated to ISS construction. The previous mission - STS-115 aboard Atlantis - delivered two massive trusses and a pair of new solar wings to the orbital laboratory in September.

NASA plans about 14 more shuttle missions to complete the ISS by September 2010, when the space agency is expected to retire its three-orbiter fleet to make way for the capsule-based Orion program.

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