HOUSTON - The space shuttle Discovery is set to finally deliver thegiant Japanese Kibo lab to its intended home today on the International SpaceStation (ISS).
Discovery is slated to dock with the ISS at 1:54 p.m. EDT (1754 GMT)this afternoon carrying the newtour bus-sized module, a $1 billion laboratory more than 20 years in themaking.
?The Kibo module is beautiful, it?s just a beautiful piece ofengineering,? Discovery mission specialist Mike Fossum said during an interviewSunday from space. ?The Japanese people are very proud of that and they have aright to be.?
Commanded by veteran astronaut Mark Kelly, Discoverylaunched Saturday from NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.,on a two-week construction mission to the space station.
?It?s everything [I expected] and more,? mission specialist KarenNyberg, a first-time spaceflyer, said duringa televised interview. ?It?s been a blast? Nothing in my experiencecompares.?
Before catching up with the orbiting laboratory, Kelly will pilot theshuttle through a 360-degree backflip about 600 feet (183 meters) below theorbital station.
The move, called a rendezvous pitch maneuver, will allow astronautsaboard the station to take high resolution pictures of the shuttle?s heat-resistantunderbelly to search for signs of damage. The images, along with data from apreliminary inspection using Discovery?s robotic arm and a later scan using alaser-tipped boom, will allow engineers to determine if the shuttle?s heatshield is in good health.
After Discovery docks with the space station, the astronauts plan toopen the hatches between the orbiter and the station to begin about 10 days ofjoint operations.
?Oh, docking day?s a big day,? mission specialist Mike Fossum said in apreflight interview. ?Once we get docked, it takes about an hour to get thehatches open. We?ll barrel across and start messing up the nice neat spacestation.?
In addition to dropping off Kibo, the space shuttle will deliver thenewest crewmember of the orbital laboratory, Greg Chamitoff. Chamitoff willrelieve U.S. astronaut Garrett Reisman as a flight engineer onboard, whileReisman is scheduled to journey home to Earth with Discovery on June 14.
The two crewmembers will officially swap places when they exchangecustom-fitted seat liners on the Soyuz spacecraft currently docked at the spacestation. When this switch - slated for 4:57 p.m. EDT (2057 GMT) - occurs,Chamitoff will officially become a member of the ISS Expedition 17 crew.
?Expedition 17 is actually a big transition point for the space stationprogram because we?re going to have all the international partners involved atthis point,? Chamitoff, a first-time spaceflyer, said before launch. ?TheJapanese module will be on board as well as the Columbus, European module.?
Discovery will also be bringing a third, eagerly-awaited addition to thespace station: a new pump forits broken toilet. The orbital commode has been acting up recently, workingfor solid waste but not for liquid, and often forcing two-astronaut teams tomanually pump it for 10 minutes in order to flush. Mission planners hope the replacementpump will restore the loo to working order.
At the end of the day, Discovery mission specialists Mike Fossum and RonGaran will begin their campout in the space station?s lower-pressure airlock inpreparation for the mission?s first spacewalk on Tuesday.
NASA is broadcasting the planned launch of Discovery'sSTS-124 mission live on NASA TV on Saturday. Click here for SPACE.com'sshuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.
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