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Astronauts board shuttle for launch rehearsal

Seven astronauts due to blast off next month to work on the international space station climbed inside their spaceship on Wednesday for a dress rehearsal for launch.
Image:  Space Shuttle Discovery Crew
Space shuttle Discovery crew are (R-L) Commander Lee Archambault, Pilot Tony Antonelli, Mission Specialists Joseph Acaba, Steve Swanson,Richard Arnold, John Phillips and Japan Space Agency Koichi Wakata. The seven man crew will fly on shuttle Discovery mission STS-119 on a fourteen day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Gary I Rothstein / EPA
/ Source: Reuters

Seven astronauts due to blast off next month to work on the international space station climbed inside their spaceship on Wednesday for a dress rehearsal for launch.

"We've been in training for almost a year, so we're very anxious to get going with the mission," said shuttle commander Lee Archambault.

The practice countdown is a routine part of all shuttle missions. NASA has nine flights remaining before the fleet is retired next year and the United States turns over the business of launching crews into orbit to the Russians until the U.S. agency's new spaceship is ready to fly in about six years.

Archambault and his crew mates — pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli, John Phillips, Steven Swanson, Richard Arnold, Joseph Acaba and Japan's Koichi Wakata — are preparing for a February 12 launch aboard shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

They will deliver and install the final set of solar wing panels to generate electricity for the $100 billion space station, a project of 16 nations under construction for more than a decade and scheduled to be completed next year.

Wakata, 45, will be left behind on the station to replace flight engineer Sandra Magnus, becoming the first Japanese astronaut to serve as a member of the live-aboard crew.

Japan contributed an elaborate three-room laboratory named Kibo to the orbiting outpost and plans to debut its space station cargo delivery system later this year.

Wakata has made two spaceflights, including an October 2000 mission to install the first piece of the station's exterior support segments. During next month's flight of Discovery, he and his crew mates plan to attach the last girder.

"I'm very lucky to be able to serve on both of those flights," Wakata said.

The astronauts dressed in their pressurized flight suits and were strapped inside Discovery for the final few hours of the practice countdown.

Had it been a real launch day, NASA would have canceled the flight due to cold temperatures, said Kennedy Space Center spokesman Allard Beutel.

After the fatal 1986 accident by the shuttle Challenger, NASA tightened the weather requirements for launches.

Challenger was lost due to a booster rocket failure triggered by faulty rubber seal that had stiffened in below-freezing temperatures the night before launch. Seven astronauts died in the accident.