updated 3/9/2009 1:34:05 PM ET 2009-03-09T17:34:05

After suffering through a month's delay, NASA enjoyed a trouble-free countdown for space shuttle Discovery, all set to blast off on a space station construction mission Wednesday night.

Launch director Mike Leinbach said Monday that the countdown was going smoothly, and forecasters put the odds of good launching weather at 90 percent. "The team is anxious to go," he said.

Shuttle managers had so little to discuss at Monday morning's launch review at that they wrapped up in under an hour.

"That included a lot of me pausing to make sure no one had any questions," said the chairman of the mission management team, Mike Moses.

Concern over some shuttle valves led to repeated meetings over the past month, one lasting as long as 13 hours. By Monday, there was little more to say about the valve issue.

One of the three hydrogen gas valves inside Endeavour's engine compartment broke in November during the last shuttle launch. NASA ordered extra testing to make sure the valves that ultimately ended up in Discovery were safe to fly.

The valves control the flow of hydrogen gas into the external fuel tank for proper pressurization.

Discovery and seven astronauts will fly to the international space station, carrying up a $300 million framework that includes two solar wings and a radiator. It's the last set of solar wings for the nearly completed space station, and should put the orbiting outpost at full power.

One of the shuttle crew, Koichi Wakata, will become the first Japanese to live aboard the space station. He'll replace an American astronaut, Sandra Magnus, who has been up there since November.

More than 200 Japanese have descended on NASA's launching site to watch the liftoff.

Shuttle crew includes skiers, ultramarathoner
The seven men who will ride space shuttle Discovery into orbit this week are an athletic bunch. When they are not training for a space shot, they're skiing, skating, snowboarding, biking or running.

The crew includes Koichi Wakata, who is about to become the first Japanese to live aboard the international space station, and Joseph Acaba, who will become the first person of Puerto Rican descent in space.

The seven crew members hit the gym just about every day.

"As busy as our schedules are, it's quite important to maintain a little bit of sanity in your life and get to the gym an hour or two a day," commander Lee Archambault said recently.

Four of the astronauts' last names begin with "A," so they're sometimes called the "A team." They will deliver and install the last set of solar wings at the international space station. Liftoff is set for Wednesday night. The launch was supposed to be a month earlier, but concerns about shuttle valves led to repeated delays.

A look at each astronaut:

Commander Lee Archambault was always a fan of the space program, but didn't apply to become an astronaut until midway through his Air Force career.

"As a military pilot, you're always looking to take it to the next step," he said.

Archambault, 48, a colonel, went from flying combat in the Gulf War to test pilot school. NASA picked him as an astronaut in 1998. This will be his second space shuttle flight and his first time in the commander's seat, where he'll be responsible for "six other crew members and a $4 billion shuttle."

Archambault grew up in Bellwood, Illinois, a Chicago suburb that was also the hometown of Gemini and Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan. He vividly recalls attending a parade honoring Cernan's first space shot in 1966.

He enjoys bicycling and ice skating; he used to play hockey. He and wife Kelly have three children.

Pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli has had astronaut on his "short list of things to do" as long as he can remember.

"I want to be up there a couple hundred miles up and look down at the Earth. I want to be a couple hundred miles up and then look out beyond the Earth with my own eyes. That's kind of all the selfish reasons I want to do it," he said. That's "the little kid part."

"But bigger than that, I think it's what humans are trying to do, find out what else is out there."

Antonelli, 41, a Navy commander, grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. That's where he became a NASCAR racing fan.

He went from flying off aircraft carriers to attending test pilot school. He became an astronaut in 2000. This will be his first spaceflight.

He and wife Janeen have two young sons. He gave up snowboarding in order to train for the flight; it's a NASA rule to ensure astronauts' well-being before a mission.

Steven Swanson finds spacewalking a cinch compared to all-day trail running.

He's completed three ultramarathons in recent years, 52-mile (84-kilometer) races in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains. Each one has taken him 13 or 14 hours. That's how long both of his spacewalks were, combined, on his last flight, in 2007. As lead spacewalker this time, he will venture out three times.

Swanson, 48, who has a doctorate in computer science and is from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, joined NASA in 1987 as an aircraft systems engineer in Houston. He became an astronaut in 1998; this will be his second space shuttle flight.

Swanson said he was drawn to the job by the adventure.

"But it also makes you use many different aspects of life, from physical, mental, all sorts of things drawn together to do one job. It's not just the same thing over and over again," he said.

He and wife Mary, a nurse practitioner, have three children.

Joseph Acaba, a geologist-turned-teacher, will become the first person of Puerto Rican descent in space.

He's taking up a Puerto Rican flag that he will present to the senate there. He's also carrying a Peace Corps flag; he served as a Peace Corps volunteer during the 1990s in the Dominican Republic, working in environmental education.

"One thing people probably don't realize is the number of engineers that we have working at NASA that are Puerto Rican, so we've been having a huge impact on the space program for quite a bit of time," he said. His spaceflight "is creating some excitement in Puerto Rico, and that's always good for the students."

The 41-year-old Acaba was born in California and grew up in Anaheim watching reel-to-reel tapes of the Apollo moon missions. He also loved science fiction.

Acaba also served in the Marine Corps Reserves, worked as a hydro-geologist, coordinated a mangrove revegetation project in Florida, then taught math and science at two central Florida schools. NASA picked him as an educator astronaut in 2004. This will be his first spaceflight; he will make two spacewalks.

Richard Arnold II's resume reads like that of a State Department worker.

He's taught science and math at American and international schools in Casablanca, Morocco; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; West Papua, Indonesia; and, most recently, Bucharest, Romania.

Reading about different places and cultures, he says, got him interested in travel. He also was fascinated with space travel since childhood. So when NASA's astronaut office opened up its doors to science teachers, it was "a pretty easy decision" to apply. Arnold of Bowie, Maryland, was picked in 2004 after 15 years of teaching. This will be his first spaceflight; he will perform three spacewalks.

Besides teaching, Arnold, 45, who goes by Ricky, has worked as an oceanographic technician for the U.S. Naval Academy and a marine scientist aboard a boat based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He has a master's degree in marine, estuarine and environmental science.

He and wife, Eloise, an educator, have two daughters.

John Phillips is a little nostalgic about returning to the international space station, his home for six months in 2005.

"But I also think it's going to be really cool to see the nice, new, bright, shiny modules that I've never seen and, frankly, don't know all that much about," he said.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 Phillips, 57, who has a doctorate in geophysics and space physics, has been an astronaut since 1996. The son of a World War II bombardier, he was a naval aviator during the 1970s and later worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, performing research with NASA's Ulysses sun-probing spacecraft.

This will be his third spaceflight. He will operate a robot arm and help unfurl the space station's newly delivered solar wings.

"It's what I always wanted to do, and I want to do it as much as I can," he said.

It's exploration, not spaceflight, that he craves. "If I had been born 100 years earlier, I probably would have been wanted to be a polar explorer or a jungle explorer or an ocean explorer," he said.

Phillips, who's from Scottsdale, Arizona, and wife Laura have two college-age children.

Koichi Wakata is about to become the first Japanese to live aboard the international space station.

Wakata will move into the orbiting outpost for at least three months. Prepackaged Japanese meals already are waiting for him there, including rice dishes, miso soup, mackerel and sardines.

"So far we don't have sushi yet. That's something we need to develop," he said.

He'll try some Japanese calligraphy in orbit — he's taking up a brush and paper — and write poetry.

Wakata can't wait to see how the space station has grown since his last brief visit in 2000.

"When we went there, nobody was living in the space station, it was so small. It was a little bigger than my apartment in Tokyo," he said. "But now it's more than three times the size."

Wakata, 45, who has a doctorate in engineering, worked for Japan Airlines before being chosen as an astronaut by the Japanese Space Agency in 1992. This will be his third spaceflight.

His wife, Stefanie, is a German businesswoman, and they have one son.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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