Wednesday, March 11, 2009


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The space shuttle Discovery is poised to launch into orbit under a full moon Wednesday night on a delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Discovery and her seven crewmembers are scheduled to blast off from a seaside launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center here at 9:20:10 p.m. EDT (0120:10 March 12 GMT) to begin their two-week construction flight.

Packed aboard the spacecraft is a new set of solar panels to be installed on the station, as well as the final stretch of the ISS's massive backbone-like girder.

Discovery is also due to deliver even more precious cargo: Koichi Wakata, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut, who is to become his nation's first long-duration spaceflyer when he joins the station's Expedition 18 crew as a flight engineer for a six-month stay.

"I feel just lucky to be able to serve as a crew member to complete the assembly of the International Space Station," Wakata said in a NASA interview.

The shuttle Discovery's countdown continues to tick smoothly toward launch Wednesday on a space station assembly mission, NASA officials said today. Liquid hydrogen and oxygen were loaded aboard the orbiter Monday evening to power the ship's electricity-producing fuel cells and engineers are on schedule prepping the shuttle for fueling and blastoff Wednesday at 9:20:10 p.m. EDT.

Aboard the space station, meanwhile, commander Mike Fincke and flight engineer Yury Lonchakov conducted a spacewalk this afternoon to mount a European experiment packaged on the hull of the Zvezda command module and to complete a variety of other tasks. Fincke and Lonchakov were unable to complete the experiment installation during their most recent previous spacewalk late last year.

Today's excursion began at 12:22 p.m. EDT when the spacewalkers, wearing Russian suits, opened the hatch of the Pirs docking and airlock module. Crewmate Sandra Magnus will monitor the spacewalk from inside the station.

For identification, Fincke, making his sixth spacewalk, was wearing a suit with red stripes and use the call sign EV-2. Lonchakov, making his second EVA, was wearing a suit with blue markings and use the call sign EV-1. No NASA helmet cameras were used during today's work.

Tasks successfully completed in today's spacewalk included:

Shortening six tie-down straps near the docking interface at the base of the Pirs module.

Installing and activating the European materials exposure experiment package.

Repositioning another space exposure package that was bumped out of position during an earlier spacewalk.

Closing an insulation flap on a connector patch panel.

Carrying out a detailed photo survey of the Zvezda command module. The more than two dozen targets include handrails, antennas, docking targets, cooling vents, thrusters and radiator panels.
The four-hour, 49-minute EVA ends at 5:11 p.m. EDT, nearly an hour ahead of schedule.

This was the 120th spacewalk devoted to station construction and maintenance since assembly began in 1998 and the first so far this year. Going into today's outing, more than 80 spacewalkers representing the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Germany, France and Sweden had logged 751 hours and seven minutes of EVA time.

To avoid conflict with an upcoming Russian mission to ferry a new crew to the station and return Fincke and Lonchakov to Earth, the docked phase of Discovery's mission must be finished by around March 26, the day the next crew is set for launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

To carry out a full-duration four-spacewalk mission, the shuttle must get off the ground by March 13 at the latest. A launch as late as March 16 or 17 is possible, but mission managers would have to eliminate one or two planned spacewalks, along with crew off-duty time.

Complicating the picture, the Air Force plans to launch a sophisticated military communications satellite aboard an Atlas 5 rocket on March 14, with March 15 as a backup. While that flight presumably could slip a few days if NASA needed more time for Discovery, shuttle managers are hopeful it won't come to that.

NASA Test DIrector Steve Payne said launch preparations are on track with no technical problems of any significance at launch pad 39A.

"At this point, we have no real concerns," Payne said. "Our systems are in good shape, the countdown is proceeding on schedule like it should be and we are ready for the exciting mission that lies ahead of us Wednesday night."

Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters said the forecast continues to call for a 90 percent chance of acceptable conditions Wednesday and Thursday, decreasing slightly to 80 percent "go" on Friday the 13th.

"The weather is looking very good for launch," Winters said. "And of course, there's going to be a full moon out so that's going to be a really nice view. Right now, it is looking like very favorable weather conditions for launch."