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Space shuttle crew arrives for countdown

NASA’s next space shuttle crew, including three men and two women who have never been in orbit before, is at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to get set for this week's night launch.
William Oefelein, Christer Fuglesang
Discovery shuttle pilot William Oefelein, left, and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang step down from their T-38 training jet at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday.John Raoux / AP
/ Source: Reuters

NASA’s next space shuttle crew, including three men and two women who have never been in orbit before, on Sunday jetted to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where their spaceship is being prepared for launch.

The 9:36 p.m. ET liftoff on Thursday will be NASA’s first in darkness since November 2002. After the Columbia disaster in February 2003, space agency managers decided to limit the initial return-to-flight launches to daytime, so that cameras could clearly see any debris that might peel off the shuttle’s fuel tank.

A piece of falling debris hit and damaged Columbia’s heat shield during liftoff, triggering its destruction as it flew through the atmosphere 16 days later for landing. Seven crew members died.

NASA believes the problems with the shuttle fuel tanks are over. Shuttle Discovery’s launch on Thursday will be the agency’s fourth since the accident.

Although work to improve the tanks is ongoing, NASA has returned to construction of the $100 billion, half-built international space station. NASA lifted the daytime launch ban so it would have enough opportunities to finish the station before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. At least 14 more flights are needed.

“We’re going to go ahead and hopefully have one heck of night show to give everybody this Thursday night. We’re looking forward to the mission,” Discovery commander Mark Polansky said shortly after the crew arrived in Florida.

The official countdown to the launch is due to begin at 11 p.m. ET Monday.

Next piece of the station
Discovery is carrying the next piece of the station — an aluminum spacer segment needed to expand its external structural truss before additional power-generating solar arrays and new laboratories can be added.

The truss installation will require one spacewalk, which will be undertaken by NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam, 44, and the European Space Agency’s Christer Fuglesang, 49, who will become the first Swede to fly in space.

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The remainder of the mission, which includes at least two more spacewalks, will be devoted to rewiring the space station’s power and cooling systems, a delicate task that requires an unprecedented number of critically timed commands sent by ground control at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The station needs power continuously during the transfer from the old system to the new one.

“We have a series of fallback plans, depending upon what might go wrong,” said Polansky, 50. “We’ve tried to plan it so that we’re very aware of the most likely chain of events that could happen.”

Rookie replacement
Rookie astronaut Sunita Williams, 41, will replace Germany’s Thomas Reiter as a member of the space station crew. Reiter is to return home with the Discovery crew on Dec. 19.

The Discovery crew also includes pilot William Oefelein, 41, and mission specialists Nicholas Patrick and Joan Higginbotham, both 42. Only Polansky and Curbeam have made previous spaceflights.