CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA?s shuttle Discovery and its seven-astronautcrew are poised to rocket spaceward this afternoon carrying the largestlaboratory ever built for the International Space Station.
Discovery is counting down toward a 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT) liftoff froma seaside launch pad here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The sevencrewmembers of the shuttle?s STS-124 mission are planning to deliverJapan?s $1 billion Kibo laboratory module - a room the size of a large tour bus- to the International Space Station (ISS).
Veteran astronaut Mark Kelly will command the planned 14-daymission, leading five rookies and one other veteran spaceflyer, missionspecialist Mike Fossum, to the orbital laboratory. The first-timers includepilot Ken Ham and mission specialists Karen Nyberg, Ron Garanand Greg Chamitoff, as well as Japanese astronautAkihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Kelly saidhe?s not worried about any lack of experience.
?They have experience, it?s just not experience in space yet, butthey?re going to get that on flight day one,? he said in a preflight interview.?We will get everything done in a professional manner, they?re all very highlytrained, and it?s not something I even really think about?? We?ve got acomplicated, busy mission ahead of us.?
Mission managers are hopeful that Discovery will be able to launch todayas planned. There is currently an 80 chance of good weather for today?s liftoffattempt, shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters said on Friday.
?Right now the weather overall is looking promising,? Winters said. ?Thefirst day [Saturday] is the best day weather-wise.?
If the space shuttle does not blast off today, the weather forecastdeteriorates for subsequent launch opportunities on Sunday and Monday, shesaid.
While in space, Discovery?s STS-124 astronauts plan to perform threespacewalks outside the station to set up the new Kibo lab and activate itsrobotic arm, the Japanese Remote Manipulator System. They will also move Kibo'ssmallerattic-like module from its temporary station to attach it to the new37-foot (11 meter) main module.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Hoshide will serve as thelocal expert on Kibo?sins and outs while the crew installs the ISS?s new addition.
?An exciting mission is coming up,? he said upon arriving in Florida onWednesday. ?I?d just like to thank all the hard work that all the Japanesepeople have been doing on the Japanese module. It?s going to be a great missionand very exciting, especially for the Japanese people.?
Discovery?s flight will be NASA?s third shuttle trip this year, and thesecond of three missions to assemble Japan?s entire 15.9-ton Kibo facility,whose name means "hope" in Japanese. The lab?s storagemodule arrived during a previous March shuttle mission, and a February flightinstalled Europe's Columbus laboratory. A third Kibo mission, set to fly in2009, will deliver a porch-like exterior platform for external spaceexperiments.
One of the astronauts slated to launch today will swap places with acurrent ISS crewmember and stay on for a long duration stint. Chamitoff willrelieve American astronaut Garrett Reisman as a flight engineer for the spacestation's Expedition 17 crew. Reisman is set return to Earth aboard Discoveryon June 14, while Chamitoff is currently due home during a planned Novembershuttle flight.
?I feel very lucky to be a part of this crew and a part of thismission,? Chamitoff said on Wednesday. ?The assembly and attachment of theJapanese Experiment Module to the ISS is going to be a real historic turningpoint for Japan? It?s also a landmark point for NASA, because after this pointwe have the operations with all the different international partners.?
Discovery?s launch will also represent a landmark flight for NASA?s overhaulof the space shuttle external fuel tanks since the Columbia disaster. Afterthat shuttle?s heat shield was fatally damaged by falling debris from itsexternal tank during launch, the agency redesigned the tanks for safety.Discovery?s trip will be the first to fly with an external tank built from theground up with the new safety features in place.
A few notable recent additions to Discovery?s payload will also mark theflight.
Onboard the shuttle is a replacement pump for the spacestation?s broken toilet, which is currently working only sporadically. NASAalso packed away a toy action figure of the Disney-Pixar character BuzzLightyear from the movie ?Toy Story,? as part of an educational partnershipwith Disney. The doll will be used to demonstrate the laws of physics in flightto get kids interested in science and exploration, NASA and Disneyrepresentatives said.
NASA will broadcast the planned launch of Discovery'sSTS-124 mission live on NASA TV, beginning at 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT) onSaturday. Click here forSPACE.com's shuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.
- New Video: STS-124 Mission Preview ? Delivering Kibo
- Video: STS-123 Mission Rewind: Launch to Kibo Attic Delivery
- The Space Shuttle Countdown Quiz