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Space shuttle carries Japanese lab into orbit PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 02 June 2008

Cape Canaveral, Florida, June 01 ( - Space shuttle Discovery blasted off a seaside launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday to deliver Japan's huge new research laboratory to the International Space Station.

The start of NASA's 123rd shuttle mission was as smooth as they come, with no technical glitches and no weather issues as the countdown clock ticked down to 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT).

That was the moment when Earth's rotation positioned the shuttle for its most direct path to the orbiting space station.

The shuttle's twin booster rockets roared to life, joining the ship's three hydrogen-burning main engines to catapult the 4.5-million-pound (2.04-million-kg) ship into the air. The load was especially hefty with Japan's Kibo lab tipping the scales at more than 16 tonnes.

"While we all tend to live for today, Kibo will give us hope for tomorrow," said shuttle commander Mark Kelly. "Now stand by for the greatest show on Earth."

Kibo, a complex that cost Japan about $2 billion to manufacture, is being installed aboard the space station in three flights. The elaborate complex includes a storage chamber, launched in March, the main lab aboard Discovery and an outdoor porch slated to fly next year.

Kibo's main segment is a 37-foot (11-meter) by 15-foot (4.6-meter) cylinder that took up much of the shuttle's 50-foot (15-meter) cargo bay.

Japan built a large complex to make sure there was plenty of room for its own ambitious science program as well as those of the station's other partner nations. The United States is entitled to half of Kibo's lab space in exchange for building and operating the station and launching the hardware.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin called the construction of a lab capable of supporting humans in space a milestone for Japan.

"With this step, Japan has shown itself to be fully capable of participating at the highest levels in space exploration," he said at a news conference after the launch.

The Kibo complex is as big as a tour bus and eventually will be outfitted with 23 refrigerator-sized racks, 10 of which will be devoted to science investigations.


In addition to fluid physics experiments, biomedical research and other microgravity studies, Japan plans cultural activities aboard Kibo, such as dance, art and sculpture.

"We're interested in creating a new art expression in space," Junichiro Shimizu, an official with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said in an interview.

Kibo was the main focus of Discovery's planned 14-day mission. Most of that time will be spent at the space station, which is in need of some maintenance and repair services.

Astronauts plan to replace a nitrogen tank that pressurizes the station's cooling system and clean a metal ring that is part of the solar power system. It is causing vibrations when it spins a pair of solar wing panels.

Discovery is also carrying a new pump for the space station's toilet, which needs to be manually flushed several times a day. Until the new commode is installed, the three-member station crew will be free to use the shuttle's toilet, NASA space flight chief Bill Gerstenmaier said.

A NASA official said a preliminary look at launch images showed that five pieces of insulating foam fell off the shuttle's external fuel tank during its climb to space. But none was expected to pose a danger to Discovery.

Fuel tank foam has been a concern for the space agency since it triggered the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. A piece of foam knocked a hole in the spacecraft's wing during launch and the ship disintegrated on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board.

The Discovery crew includes lead spacewalker Mike Fossum and five rookies in space: pilot Kenneth Ham, flight engineer Ronald Garan, lead robotic arm operator Karen Nyberg, Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and space station flight engineer Gregory Chamitoff, who will swap places with NASA's Garrett Reisman.

NASA has seven missions planned to finish construction of the $100 billion station and two resupply flights before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

It also plans to fly a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope in October.

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