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Next space shuttle crew practices launch

Seven astronauts scheduled to deliver the first part of Japan's laboratory to the International Space Station climbed aboard their spaceship on Monday to rehearse for the launch in two weeks.
Image: Endeavour crew
Before the simulated launch countdown in space shuttle Endeavour, the crew gathers on NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A. Seen from the left are mission specialists Rick Linnehan and Robert L. Behnken; pilot Gregory H. Johnson; commander Dominic Gorie; and mission specialists Mike Foreman, Garrett Reisman and Takao Doi.Jim Grossmann / NASA
/ Source: Reuters

Seven astronauts scheduled to deliver the first part of Japan's laboratory to the International Space Station climbed aboard their spaceship on Monday to rehearse for the launch in two weeks.

Dressed in bright orange pressurized flight suits, the crew, which includes Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, boarded space shuttle Endeavour to participate in a practice countdown for NASA's 122nd shuttle flight.

Launch from the Kennedy Space Center is scheduled for March 11 at 2:28 a.m. ET.

The astronauts are to spend 16 days in orbit to deliver part of Japan's Kibo complex and install a Canadian-built robot hand to the space station's crane.

Five spacewalks are scheduled, including one to test a heat shield repair technique NASA wants to complete before clearing shuttle Atlantis for a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope later this year.

Atlantis returned from a mission last week that delivered Europe's Columbus laboratory to the space station. It left behind French astronaut Leopold Eyharts to oversee its setup. Eyharts will be replaced by Endeavour astronaut Garrett Reisman.

"We know we're pressing KSC (Kennedy Space Center) a bit, having these back-to-back missions, but once you got a good thing going, you ought to keep it going," commander Dominic Gorie told reporters gathered at the runway as the crew arrived for the three-day dress rehearsal.

"After this last landing, everyone here just want to launch another one just as quick as we can," Gorie said.

Gorie and lead spacewalker Richard Linnehan will be making their fourth spaceflights. Japan's Doi made one previous flight in 1997.

Reisman and the rest of the crew — Robert Behnken, Michael Foreman and pilot Gregory Johnson — are rookies.

NASA has 12 shuttle flights remaining, including the Hubble mission, before the fleet is retired in September 2010.

Kibo, which means "hope" in Japanese, is the station's largest laboratory, requiring three flights for its launch.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, spent more than $3 billion developing the complex, which will include a porch with robot arms to tend to science experiments left exposed to the environment of space.

The agency estimates its total contribution for Kibo will exceed $6 billion once station operations and its new ground control center costs are included.

Like Europe's Columbus module, Kibo's launch has been on hold for more than a decade, delayed by Russian funding issues and the 2003 Columbia disaster that halted space station construction for 3 1/2 years.

"I'm very happy to be here — finally," Doi said.