Image: Forrester and Sturckow
Charles W Luzier  /  Reuters
Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow flashes an "OK" sign as he taxis his T-38 training jet along the runway at NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida on Monday. On the left is crew member Patrick Forrester. The astronauts arrived for Friday's scheduled shuttle launch. news services
updated 6/4/2007 10:55:19 PM ET 2007-06-05T02:55:19

The seven-man crew assigned to the space shuttle Atlantis’ upcoming mission to the international space station arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Monday in preparation for Friday’s planned liftoff.

The countdown is due to begin Tuesday, with the shuttle scheduled to launch from its Florida seaside pad at 7:38 p.m. ET Friday.

“It’s great to be down here in Florida,” commander Rick Sturckow, 45, who has made two previous flights on the shuttle, told reporters who attended Monday's arrival.

The crew includes four rookies: pilot Lee Archambault, 46; flight engineer Steven Swanson, 46; spacewalker John ”Daniel” Olivas, 41; and astronaut Clayton Anderson, 48, a recent addition who will become a member of the resident space station crew.

Anderson is replacing station flight engineer Sunita Williams, 41, who has been aboard the orbital outpost since December. Williams had been due to come home at the end of the shuttle mission after Atlantis, but NASA decided to shift the schedule due to delays in the launch schedule.

Also aboard Atlantis will be spacewalkers Patrick Forrester, 50, a veteran of one previous flight, and James Reilly, 53, who will be making his third voyage into space.

‘Little bit of a setback’
Initially, NASA had planned to be flying its second mission of the year, not the first, in June. A freak storm in February, however, pelted Atlantis with hailstones and damaged its fuel tank. The shuttle was returned to its processing hangar for repairs, delaying the flight by three months.

Slideshow: From Earth to stars “We spent a long time training for this mission,” Sturckow said. “As you know, we had a little bit of a setback. We flew by the launch pad on our way here and (the shuttle) looks great.”

Atlantis is expected to spend a week at the space station so crew members can install another set of power-producing solar wings. The outpost, a project of 16 nations, is about half-finished. Construction was interrupted by the 2003 Columbia accident and is now scheduled for completion in 2010.

NASA will be fighting the clock to get it finished in time, as the space shuttles, the only vehicles designed to haul the large components into space and assemble them, will be retired in three years.

Despite the delays in launching Atlantis, NASA insists it has ample time to finish the 16 missions on schedule, including a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Strike may be on the horizon
The space agency is keeping an eye on a possible labor union strike against its prime shuttle contractor, United Space Alliance.

The 569 space workers rejected a contract offer from United Space Alliance last weekend, and could go on strike as early as Saturday. NASA officials said a strike would not affect the launch. So far, no decision has been made on exactly when to strike.

“Unless they decide to come to their senses a little bit, I’m sure that it’s likely,” said Johnny Walker, directing business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 166. “I would urge NASA to not let the company put them in a bad situation.”

The workers represent only a drop in the bucket of Kennedy Space Center’s 17,000-person work force. Most of them labor in support areas, and few have any direct role in the final preparations for space shuttle launches, said Tracy Yates, a company spokeswoman.

Prelaunch work mostly done
Many of the workers work in logistics, warehousing, shipping and receiving, ground systems equipment and facilities maintenance. Others operate cranes and maintain the crawler-transporter used to deliver space shuttles to launch pads.

Most of the work for the shuttle launch already has been completed by the employees who may strike. If there were a strike, managers and nonunion workers who have experience or certification in those jobs would be pressed into service, Yates said.

But Walker said those people wouldn’t be up to the jobs.

“The guys that operate the crawlers and do the crane work, it takes our guys years to do the certification,” Walker said. “It’s not something that they teach somebody for three weeks or a couple of days, and then they walk in and do. That’s dangerous business.”

United Space Alliance was formed more than a decade ago and is owned equally by the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Yates said the company was open to further talks, but as of Monday none were occurring.

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