CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Seven NASA astronauts are spending what they hope will be their last day on Earth before launching toward the International Space Station Friday night aboard the shuttle Endeavour.
The five-man, two-woman crew of Endeavour is a mix of spaceflight veterans and first-time flyers, but wholly committed to making vital repairs and delivering new gear to double the station's occupancy up to six people next year.
"I think every commander would like to think that he's got the best crew that was ever assembled to fly a space station mission. I'm no exception," said Endeavour commander Chris Ferguson in a NASA interview. "These folks are extremely talented, extremely hard-working."
Endeavour is slated to launch toward the space station Friday at 7:55 p.m. EST (0055 Nov. 15 GMT) on a planned 15-day mission that will span Thanksgiving and the orbital laboratory's 10th anniversary on Nov. 20.
Here's a look at Endeavour's seven-astronaut crew as they prepare for liftoff:
Shuttle commander Chris Ferguson is making his second trip to space on Endeavour's STS-126 mission, but it's his first trip in charge. He spent 12 days in space as the pilot for shuttle Atlantis to help deliver new U.S. solar arrays to the station in 2006.
"It is so much different this time than it was the last time around," Ferguson, 47, told reporters last week. "Of course, as commander you worry a bit more."
A U.S. Navy captain, Ferguson grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., and quenched his early thirst for spaceflight by following NASA's Apollo and Skylab missions as a child. He watched the first shuttle launch in 1981 while in college and ultimately joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1998.
When he's not flying a NASA shuttle, Ferguson plays drums in the all-astronaut band Max Q, and is looking forward to seeing how the space station has changed with the addition of new solar wings and international laboratory modules since his last flight.
"I'm just thrilled to be going back there," he said.
Ferguson and his wife, Sandra, have a 16-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 14 and 12.
At 44, U.S. Air Force Col. Eric Boe is making his first foray into space as Endeavour's pilot, but remembers starting on the path at age 5, when his parents sat him down in front of the television to witness history.
"Years later, I can still remember the image on the black and white TV of seeing the moon landing, and that kind of put a little nugget in my brain to think about doing that in the future," he said in a NASA interview.
Boe grew up in Atlanta and made good on that nugget in 2000, when he joined NASA's astronaut corps and he's eagerly awaiting his first impressions and sensations after reaching space.
"I've seen lots of pictures of space, but it's kind of like looking at someone's vacation through pictures when they've come back," Boe told reporters last week. "When you've taken the pictures yourself you kind of have a different perspective on what those pictures mean."
Boe and wife, Kristen, have a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
Home, sweet, (space) home
Endeavour mission specialist Don Pettit considers Friday night's launch as a return home of sorts. After all, he's still got some stuff stashed away aboard the International Space Station from when he lived aboard the orbital laboratory for about 5 1/2 months in 2002 and 2003.
"I think of the station as sort of my home away from home," Pettit, 53 told SPACE.com last week. "So I sort of feel like I'm going back home, only it's just for a visit and not to stay."
Pettit was in space during NASA's tragic 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew. He later landed aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which returned to Earth in a steeper than usual descent and was out of contact with recovery crews for a time.
On Endeavour's flight, Pettit will oversee the delivery of fresh cargo and a water recycling system to the station as the mission's loadmaster, as well as fly the outpost's robotic arm.
But Pettit, a chemical engineer who spent his weekends in space performing extra science or tinkering with broken equipment, also said he's hoping to seek some his old stuff, including the station's mysterious Strange Tool Bag, which he remembers fondly from his last flight.
"In this Strange Tool Bag are a couple of my favorite tools and I will be anxious to see those tools are still there," Pettit said.
Pettit grew up in Silverton, Ore., and is married to wife Micki. They have twin sons who will turn 8 on Nov. 29, when Endeavour is currently slated to land. Pettit missed the boys' 2nd birthday during his first spaceflight, and has packed some brownies in his luggage to serve as space birthday cakes for his sons when he returns.
The submariner spaceman
Navy Capt. Steve Bowen joined NASA's astronaut corps in 2000 as the first-ever submarine officer to turn spaceflyer. He's looking forward to some breathing room aboard Endeavour in space, which he'll share with just six other people as compared to the 100 or so crewmates aboard a Navy submarine.
"My wife said 'Steve will be so happy, he's never had so much room his entire life,'" Bowen, 44, said of his wife Deborah's first impressions of the shuttle's interior.
Bowen will perform three of the four spacewalks during Endeavour's flight, with most of that work aimed at cleaning and greasing up the space station's balky starboard solar array joint. He grew up in Cohasset, Mass., and has two sons, ages 17 and 12, and a 15-year-old daughter. He will make his first spaceflight during Endeavour's flight.
There're a lot of similarities between flying in a confined are with others in a spaceship and shipping out in a sealed submarine for months on end, but Bowen said he's especially interested in seeing how space food — especially on Thanksgiving — compares with the lofty reputation of his beloved submarine mess hall.
"It's one of the things the submarine force is noted for, is their food," he said. Good eats, even underwater, are good for crew morale, he added.
Leading Endeavour's spacewalking crew is Navy Capt. Heidemarie "Heide" Stefanyshyn-Piper, who last visited the station with Ferguson during their 2006 mission aboard Atlantis.
Stefanyshyn-Piper, 45, has two spacewalks under her belt from her last mission and will add three more during Endeavour's flight to spearhead the repair of the station's solar array joint. The St. Paul, Minn.-native initially hoped to fly aircraft for the Navy but failed the eye exam, so she took to salvage diving instead.
"I was fixing ships for the Navy, doing underwater ship repair and I thought 'You know if I could fix ships underwater, I can build a space station in space,'" Stefanyshyn-Piper said in a NASA interview.
Stefanyshyn-Piper joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1996 and is married to husband, Glenn. They have a 19-year-old son in college.
The new class
Rounding out Endeavour's spacewalking team is U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert "Shane" Kimbrough, 41, who is the first of NASA's newest U.S. astronaut class to fly.
"It's really an honor to be in that position," Kimbrough, 41, told SPACE.com. "When we first got here in the program in 2004, we were told he you may never fly anything."
But flying in space seems to be in Kimbrough's blood. While he grew up in Atlanta, his grandparents lived near NASA's Kennedy Space Center here, so as a child he watched all of the Apollo missions blast off until rocket launches became the norm.
A veteran Army helicopter pilot, Kimbrough is making his first spaceflight aboard Endeavour and will perform two spacewalks. He drew on his Army parachutist training while preparing for the spacewalks, both of which require the utmost precision, he said.
Kimbrough and his wife Robbie Lynn have twin daughters, age 11, and an 8-year-old son.
Space station's new tenant
Astronaut Sandra Magnus, 44, is pulling double duty as both a shuttle and space station crewmember during Endeavour's mission. She will launch aboard the shuttle late Friday, but then replace NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff as part of the station's Expedition 18 crew for the next 3 1/2 months.
"It's actually starting to feel real," Magnus told SPACE.com.
Magnus grew up in Belleville, Ill., where the idea of becoming an astronaut grew stronger over time into a full-fledged mission until she joined NASA's spaceflying ranks in 1996.
"Just the whole idea of exploring and learning new things just grabbed me, and space was the place to do it," she said in a NASA interview.
Magnus will spend the bulk of her time aboard the station activating the new gear riding up to the outpost aboard Endeavour, including the water recycling equipment, a spare kitchen and second toilet and other equipment. The mission will mark her second spaceflight. She last flew to the station during a two-week shuttle flight in 2002.
"When you arrive on the shuttle, you have things to do — and you really don't have time to think and take in your environment in the way that I will on the space station," she said. "So I think it's going to be very, very interesting."