Discovery to head towards International Space Station

March 10th, 2009 - 11:58 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, March 10 (DPA) After weeks of delay, the space shuttle Discovery is set to make an important delivery to the International Space Station, bringing the last set of solar panels needed to produce enough power to house an expanded crew.
Discovery is scheduled to launch at 9:20 p.m. Wednesday (0120 GMT Thursday) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the fourth and final set of solar wings that will complete the station’s truss. The shuttle will also bring the ISS’ first long-term Japanese crew member.

The shuttle was to have launched in February but was pushed back several times to allow NASA time to examine valves that control the flow of gaseous hydrogen from the spacecraft’s engine to its external fuel tank. A valve was found to be damaged after the space shuttle Endeavour’s November flight, prompting NASA to delay Discovery’s mission as a precautionary measure.

An old-fashioned magnetic stress test convinced managers last week that Discovery could launch, saving about a month’s time in the hectic final two years before the ageing shuttle fleet is retired.

With the pressure of 10 launches by September 2010 weighing on the US space agency, NASA hit a glitch last month over worries about cracked fuel valves breaking off and damaging the spacecraft during launch.

It had earlier seemed Discovery could not launch before mid-April, two months after originally planned.

The Discovery’s 14-day mission will include four spacewalks. The first will focus on getting the 14,118-kilogram, 14-metre solar array in place to complete the station’s backbone, making it longer than the length of a football field.

Its wings will be unfurled later in the mission from inside the station, doubling the amount of power collected for the station from 15 kilowatts to 30 kilowatts and allowing the permanent crew to double to six astronauts.

The upcoming mission will bring the ISS its first Japanese member. Koichi Wakata, 45, will serve as a flight engineer on the station and will help complete the ISS’ Japanese Kibo module.

Wakata began his career at Japan Airlines as an engineer and was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1992. Since then, he has spent more than 21 days in space - as the first Japanese mission specialist aboard space shuttle Endeavour in 1996 and aboard the Discovery in 2000, when he was the first Japanese astronaut to work on ISS assembly.

“I hope my flight as a long-duration flight crew member will further motivate the people in Japan in the human space exploration,” he said in an interview published by NASA.

US astronaut Sandra Magnus will return to Earth with the Discovery crew. Wakata joins US astronaut Michael Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov aboard ISS.

The other three spacewalks focus on a variety of smaller construction tasks, including installing a GPS unit and preparing for further work by removing covers and getting equipment and batteries into the proper place.

Discovery will also deliver a new device designed to recycle urine and sweat into drinkable water. An earlier machine had been installed on a previous mission, but astronauts never managed to get it fully functioning. The older version will be returned to Earth so engineers can examine it for flaws.

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