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Discovery heads to space station with Japanese lab PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 02 June 2008

CAPE CANAVERAL (AFP) - The US shuttle Discovery carrying a Japanese research laboratory raced toward the International Space Station Sunday after a successful launch from Florida.

"A huge day for the space station partnership, for the Japanese space agency, for NASA and, really, for the people who hoped to see the space station do what it was designed to do, to be a place in orbit where we can learn to live and work in space," said NASA administrator Mike Griffin after Saturday's spectacular liftoff.

While the launch at Kennedy Space Center here was marred by video evidence of several chunks of foam shedding off Discovery's external fuel tank, a top official of the US space agency said it did not endanger Discovery.

"We saw maybe five pieces of foam break away... We don't consider this a big thing," said Bill Gerstenmeier, NASA associate administrator for space operations.

He brushed off worries that the foam could have caused the kind of damage that led to the Columbia disaster in 2003, when the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry due to launch-damaged insulation tiles, killing all seven aboard.

"They were late in the ascent," he said of the foam chunks that came off during the Discovery launch Saturday.

"They can't build up enough velocity that they can hit the orbiter" and cause any significant damage, he said.

Discovery carried one Japanese and six American astronauts to deliver the massive pressurized module (JPM) and a robotic arm for the Japanese Aerospace exploration Agency's (JAXA) Kibo science research unit.

"Liftoff of space shuttle Discovery. Gambattei kudasai -- best of luck to the International Space Station's newest laboratory," National Aeronautics and Space Administration announcer Allard Beutel said at the launch, encouraging the crew in Japanese.

"Discovery flying true, speeding toward a date with the International Space Station Monday," he added, describing the launch as "a man-made rising sun on behalf of Japan."

Minutes later, Discovery reached orbit, NASA officials said.

Also aboard were plumbing parts for the ISS toilet, which malfunctioned earlier this week forcing the three ISS astronauts to rig up a still-troublesome bypass for liquid waste.

NASA officials were happy about the trouble-free progress of the launch countdown, especially since nagging problems with sensors on the external fuel tank delayed several launches in 2006.

The centerpiece of the 14-day mission is to deliver and install the 11.2-meter (36.7-foot), 14.8-tonne (32,600-pound) pressurized module of Kibo, which means Hope in Japanese.

When in place, it will be the single largest room on the ISS, with space for four scientists to work.

Another key Kibo unit, its 10-meter (33-foot) robotic arm, to be used for manipulating materials and equipment for science experiments, is being sent up on the shuttle.

Installation of the JPM will be overseen by JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

Discovery is also carrying up a last-minute load of much-needed parts for the ISS's Russian toilet, which partially failed this week.

The three astronauts living on the station were forced to use the facilities in the attached Soyuz spacecraft before they could rig up a temporary fix to the toilet, but that fix requires extra manpower and excess water to flush.

The crew will include a replacement astronaut for the ISS, with US robotics specialist Greg Chamitoff stepping in for another American, Garrett Reisman, who will return to Earth after three months at the station.

The astronauts were bid good night by mission control in Houston Texas at about 11:00 pm Saturday (0300 GMT Sunday) ahead of a busy Sunday working on an inspection of the shuttle's heat shield for damage in the launch, and preparing for docking with the ISS on Monday.

Three spacewalks are planned, mainly for setting up the Kibo module and the robotic arm.

It is the second of three missions to take up key components of Kibo, which will host experiments in space medicine, biology and biotechnology, material production, and communications.

Kibo's third main section, a "terrace" outside the JPM completely exposed to outer space, is to be delivered by a shuttle flight in March 2009.

When fully assembled, Kibo will complete the architecture of the ISS, built together with the United States, Russia and Europe.

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