CAPE CANAVERAL - The coming year is going to be a full one on Florida's Space Coast.

There will be a construction boom that will triple the size of the International Space Station.

Then there are the missions to Mercury, the moon and Mars.

There will be 16 rocket launches.

In addition, there will be a half-dozen NASA shuttle flights, including a fifth and final servicing call on the Hubble Space

If all the scheduled shuttle launches occur this year, they would be at a rate not seen since before the 2003 Columbia accident.

"We have an ambitious goal ahead of us," NASA shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said. "But I believe it's achievable."

Here are five big space stories to be looking for in 2008:

NASA bound for planetary encounters

NASA's Messenger spacecraft will make the first flyby of Mercury in more than 30 years on Jan. 14, cruising within 125 miles of the planet's surface. It will be the first of three close passes the spacecraft will make before dropping into orbit around the planet in 2011.

NASA's Phoenix lander is slated to touch down on Mars in late May, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter -- a spacecraft that will search for suitable moon base sites -- will blast off in late October.

Hubble huggers head for flagship observatory

Seven astronauts will launch in August on a mission to outfit the Hubble telescope with new science instruments and equipment that will keep the 17-year-old observatory operating through 2013.

It might be the final flight of Atlantis, although NASA is considering an option to keep the orbiter flying until the shuttle program ends in 2010.

Endeavour at the same time will be poised to launch a rescue mission should an emergency crop up during the Hubble flight.

The observatory is in a different orbit than the space station, so the astronauts would not be able to seek safe haven there if their spaceship suffers serious damage.

2008 presidential election

President Bush in 2004 directed NASA to finish the station and retire its shuttle fleet in 2010, field a new spaceship by 2014 and send U.S. astronauts back to the moon by 2020.

A new administration will take office in January 2009, and NASA may or may not get new marching orders.

Next month, the Republican and Democratic parties both will hold presidential primaries in Florida. Local political leaders are pressing the candidates to detail their plans for NASA.

"The only candidate with any kind of substantial space policy on their Web site is Hillary" Rodham Clinton, said U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.)

The Clinton policy calls for NASA to complete the station and speed development of the Ares 1 rockets and Orion spacecraft that will replace the shuttle. It also says Clinton "will not allow a repeat of the 'brain drain' that occurred between the Apollo and shuttle missions."

Weldon said Republican candidates should address the issues, which are critical to many voters at the east end of the politically important Interstate 4 corridor.

"They need to wake up and smell the coffee," Weldon said.

Hear the rockets roar

United Launch Alliance plans 16 Atlas and Delta rocket launches at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station next year. Six Delta 2 rockets, four Delta 4 rockets and six Atlas 5 rockets are to be sent aloft.

SpaceX, a newcomer from California, also plans debut launches from Launch Complex 40, a former Titan pad.

Founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, the company is planning two demonstration flights of its Falcon 9 rocket in late 2008.

The company aims to prove it can provide safe and reliable commercial freight and crew transport services to the station after the shuttle fleet is retired.

The grand station expansion plan

NASA is planning five station assembly flights, missions aimed at delivering European and Japanese science labs and at completing its central truss.

Spacewalking repairs on a fouled-up solar wing rotary joint will be required to produce enough electricity for the labs, and the station will be stocked so crews can be expanded from three to six in 2009.

"I would tell you that next year is largely about bringing our international partners to orbit finally," said NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini. "And the next phase is to get ourselves ready for a six-person crew."

The United States and Russia linked the first two station building blocks in late 1998, and the $100 billion outpost now is about 60 percent complete.

If all goes well, NASA would have a real chance to complete construction of the station -- a project that involves 100,000 people from 15 nations on four continents -- as scheduled in 2010.

NASA space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier said, "It's going to be a great time for the space station."

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