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AFP - Getty Images
An armadillo prepares to cross a gravel road as the space shuttle Endeavour rests on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. Mission managers cleared the shuttle for its planned Feb. 7 launch, but acknowledged "angst" among the work force at the launch site.
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updated 2/5/2010 4:52:54 PM ET 2010-02-05T21:52:54

With many still in shock over this week's space exploration shake-up, NASA managers insist the launch team is focused on safely launching Endeavour on Sunday.

Mission managers cleared the space shuttle for liftoff even as they used words like "angst" to describe the mood of the work force at the launching site.

"Distractions are there. Shock is there. Uncertainty. But ... I do not worry about the folks" while they're doing their job, launch director Mike Leinbach said Friday.

Leinbach said he has asked his team to approach Endeavour's upcoming launch — and the four missions that will follow to close out the shuttle program — as a professional sports team.

"We can be down in the fourth quarter. We can be many, many points behind. But we're going to play every down until the final whistle blows," Leinbach told reporters.

On Monday, President Barack Obama ordered a new course for NASA, ditching the back-to-the-moon program of the previous administration. Instead, Obama is proposing more research that could have astronauts heading to the asteroids or Mars, sooner and cheaper than under the old plan. That's good news for the space station, which won an extension until 2020. But it could mean even more layoffs for the shuttle work force.

"It's the uncertainty right now that has people most concerned I'd say," Leinbach said.

Endeavour and its crew of six will deliver a new room to the International Space Station, as well as a one-of-a-kind observation deck. The room, named Tranquility, and window-encircled dome were built in Italy at the behest of the European Space Agency. Tranquility cost more than $380 million, while the dome tallied $27 million.

More than 100 Europeans connected to the project traveled to Cape Canaveral for the launch.

"It's like a baby growing up, a child leaving the house," said Bernardo Patti, the European space station program manager.

With a 4:39 a.m. launch time, it's the last scheduled night liftoff for a shuttle and should be visible, weather permitting, all the way up the East Coast. The odds of good weather for the launch now stand at 80 percent.

The two Americans aboard the space station offered encouragement Friday morning to the mission management team gathered at Kennedy Space Center. The astronauts said in a radio hookup that a successful shuttle flight will pave the way for a better future, no matter what it is.

"Keep your eye on the ball, keep your head down, and let's make sure we're doing our jobs," was the message from orbit, said Mike Moses, chairman of the management team.

The early morning launch leaves plenty of time for workers to get home and rest up for Sunday night's Super Bowl. If a problem crops up and liftoff is rescheduled for early Monday morning, that means the launch team will have to report to duty right around game time.

"We're not going to change our plan based on the Super Bowl, frankly," Leinbach said. "This is Super Bowl 48, is that right? I might be wrong on that. So there have been quite a few, and there will probably be more."

For the record, it's Super Bowl 44.

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