CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – For the first time in more than four years, a NASA space shuttle — Discovery — is poised to light up the night sky in an evening launch bound for the international space station. But weather may intervene.
Veteran spaceflyer Mark Polansky and his six-astronaut crew are set to launch spaceward Thursday night at 9:35:47 p.m. EST (0235:47 Dec. 8 GMT) on a challenging mission to deliver a new piece of the space station and rewire the outpost's power grid.
"I'm looking forward to a really spectacular launch coming up," NASA shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said of the planned space shot. "I think we're all ready to resume night launches."
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Only poor weather threatens Discovery's planned liftoff, with forecasts predicting just a 40 percent chance of favorable launch conditions. Low clouds and local rain showers are top concerns, shuttle weather officials have said.
Discovery's launch window stretches through Dec. 17, though Friday and Saturday space shots also suffer from dismal weather outlooks.
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[NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Thursday afternoon that the weather forecast was so bad for Friday that the secondary launch attempt would be Saturday.
"I doubt we would even try to [load the fuel] tank tomorrow if we don't make it for today," Griffin said, according to the Associated Press.
The current launch window is open until Dec. 17. NASA wants Discovery to complete its 12-day mission and be back on the ground by New Year's Eve because of fears the antiquated computers on the shuttle might not handle the year changeover properly.
Despite the likelihood the shuttle wouldn't launch that evening, Discovery's external liquid-fuel tank was filled Thursday afternoon.]
Set to ride into space with Polansky are Discovery shuttle pilot William Oefelein and mission specialists Robert Curbeam, Nicholas Patrick, Joan Higginbotham, Sunita Williams and European Space Agencyastronaut Christer Fuglesang, set to be Sweden's first man in orbit.
With exceptions of Polansky and Curbeam, all five STS-116 astronauts are making their spaceflight debut.
"We're certainly going to go into the thing very optimistic," Polansky told reporters during training. "We expect that everything is going to work just as advertised."
Discovery's STS-116 launch will mark NASA's fourth shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia accident, and the first to lift off in darkness since late 2002.
Shuttle flight controllers are relying radar installations to monitor the spacecraft's ascent. More than 100 cameras will watch the launch, their view illuminated by Discovery's twin solid rocket boosters, NASA officials said.
Orbital construction awaits
Discovery's STS-116 astronauts are hauling the $11-million Port 5 (P5) spacer segment to the ISS and will install it to the station's portside edge during the first of three spacewalks planned for their 12-day mission.
Two other spacewalks are dedicated to rewiring the space station's power system into its permanent configuration and the activation of the $100 billion orbital laboratory's primary cooling system.
Some tasks hinge on the successful retraction of a solar panel — something never before attempted in the station's six years of human occupation — which will allow new portside solar arrays to rotate and track the Sun.
"I don't think we've ever had a flight where we've done so much reconfiguration of the ISS all at once," NASA's ISS program manager Michael Suffredini said this week. "We're going to do the largest power down of the space station on this flight."
The STS-116 mission also includes the rotation of one crew member aboard the ISS.
Williams, a spacewalker and mission specialist, will relieve ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter as an Expedition 14 flight engineer. She'll join ISS commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin aboard the station.
"Thomas [Reiter] is ready to return, although in talking to him last week, it sounded as if he would stay a little bit longer if we asked him to," Suffredini said, adding that Reiter has lived aboard the ISS since July. "The team is ready to go and the vehicle is ready to accept the shuttle crew."
NASA's last three shuttle launches — two return to flight tests and one ISS construction mission — each launched in daylight to give ground and air-based observers a clear view of the orbiter's external fuel tank safety modifications.
No less than 107 visible and infrared cameras, three launch radar systems are in place to track fuel tank foam debris — or other debris for all NASA shuttle launches following the 2003 Columbia accident.
Launch controllers added an additional radar system — literally for the birds — to scan for pesky vultures or other avian visitors flying along a shuttle's launch path.
Shuttle officials are confident that illumination from Discovery's rocket boosters will generate enough light to record the shuttle's launch by camera based on nighttime tests conducted last month.
""We had a marvelous night firing of a solid rocket motor," Hale said. "We proved that some of the cameras on board the vehicle will get some data for us."
Discovery's crew, meanwhile, is eager to fly.
"It's time for a night launch," Patrick said.
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