CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA?s shuttle Atlantis is ready to haul a new Europeanlaboratory toward the International Space Station (ISS) this week, top missionmanagers said Tuesday.
Atlantisand its seven-astronaut crew are poised to launch toward the station with theEuropean Space Agency?s (ESA) Columbus laboratory on Thursday at 4:31 p.m. EST(2131 GMT) to mark NASA?s fourth shuttle flight of the year.
?It?s avery good day for us,? said LeRoy Cain, Atlantis? mission management teamchairman, in an afternoon briefing here at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). ?Thevehicle is ready, the crew is ready and the flight control team is ready.?
Commandedby veteranshuttle astronaut Stephen Frick, Atlantis? STS-122 crew will install Columbus, replace one space station crewmember and outfit the orbital lab?s exterior withnew hardware and experiments during their planned11-day mission. If the shuttle?s power supply holds out, the mission may beextended by two days to add an extra spacewalk so astronauts can inspect abalky ISS solar array joint.
Duringtheir spacewalks, Atlantis? STS-122 crew will wear protective overgloves on topof their normal spacesuit gloves to prevent the types of slices and cuts seenby astronauts on previous spacewalks, Mike Suffredini, NASA?s ISS programmanager, told reporters.
Aside fromthe last-minute repair of threeminor dings on Atlantis? foam-covered fuel tank, the orbiter?s launchpreparations have gone smoothly, mission managers said.
?It?s beena very, very smooth, clean countdown,? added NASA shuttle launch director DougLyons. ?And, of course, we like it that way.?
Currentforecasts predict a 90percent chance of favorable weather conditions at liftoff, with the slight possibilityof low clouds over Atlantis? Pad 39A launch site posing the only threat for theplanned space shot, mission managers said.
NASA?s slimwindow in which to launch Atlantis and its Columbus cargo to the ISS closes onDec. 13, when the angles between the space station?s power-generating solarwings and the sun become unfavorable to support docked operations. If Atlantis cannotlaunch this month, NASA would likely stand down until Jan. 2, shuttle officialshave said.
Frick andhis STS-122 crew arrived at KSC on Monday and spent much of today rehearsingshuttle landings, flying on NASA T-38 jets and undergoing final preflightmedical checks. The ESA?s 13-ton Columbus lab, meanwhile, is packed insideAtlantis? payload bay and ready to fly.
Two membersof the shuttle?s crew - veteran spaceflyers HansSchlegel and Leopold Eyharts - are ESA astronauts who will help break intheir agency?s first permanent manned space laboratory after years ofdevelopment and delay.
?We areextremely excited,? said Alan Thirkettle, the ESA?s space station programmanager, adding that the European astronauts are eager to open Columbus for business. ?We?re looking forward to seeing Columbus being where it belongs.?
NASAwill broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASATV feed.
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