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Endeavour Will Set Record for Biggest Off Earth Gathering

Mix seven shuttle astronauts and six space station residents, and you set a record for the biggest off-the-planet gathering.

NASA is aiming to launch Endeavour on Saturday morning to the international space station for a long, laborious construction job. When the shuttle pulls up, there will be 13 people at the station — the most people ever together in space at one time.

Complicating matters is that the station tenants are still getting used to having twice as many people around. Now they're getting seven house guests who will stay for nearly two weeks.

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Everyone — astronauts and managers alike — agrees it will be a challenge managing so many people. Just last week, space station resident Bob Thirsk said coordinating this first new crew of six was "a little bit like herding cats."

But NASA has little choice but to hurry things along, if it hopes to finish the space station by the end of next year. The countdown began Wednesday, and good weather is forecast for Saturday.

Space shouldn't be a problem. With nine rooms, two toilets, two kitchens and two mini-gyms, the nearly completed orbiting complex can accommodate 13, at least temporarily. Plus there's a bathroom, kitchen and exercise equipment on the visiting shuttle.

NASA's biggest concern is keeping the communication loops clear, especially during the five planned spacewalks.

Imagine 13 people in your house, all doing something different and having questions, said flight director Holly Ridings.

"If you're the one single person in that house who can answer all of the questions, such as one of the control centers on the ground, well, you can't all ask those questions at the same time," she said.

Together, the astronauts will add the final segment to the huge Japanese lab, store big spare parts to the outside of the station, and change out batteries and perform other maintenance work. All three robotic arms, two on the station, will be required.

The 13 space travelers represent all the major space station partners: seven from the United States, two each from Russia and Canada, and one each from Belgium and Japan.

Their ages range from 37 to 55; all but one are men. Five are military officers. Four are physicians. One is the son of a Soviet cosmonaut. One is a former Navy SEAL honored for his combat in Afghanistan. The lone woman is the mother of a nearly 6-year-old boy named after one of the fallen Columbia astronauts; he was born just months after the accident.

All 13 are driven.

"Sometimes one of the problems can be that everybody wants to help," said shuttle commander Mark Polansky. "We're all Type A people and we want to get the job done. With the old adage of too many cooks, you could have too many folks trying to help ... So what we need to do is make sure that we stay focused on our tasks, we don't interfere with each other."

NASA has instituted no rules for crowd control, but has had plenty of discussions and even rehearsals to ensure things go smoothly. With so much to accomplish in "rapid fire fashion," Ridings said, there won't be time to spare.

"I'm sure there are going to be growing pains, there's no doubt about it," Polansky said.

There's a pecking order for workouts, for example — Polansky, his co-pilot and the returning space station resident get first dibs on the exercise equipment. The two pilots need to be in prime condition for landing their ship following 16 days of weightlessness.

Some of the shuttle crew also will get restroom assignments to limit the amount of urine collected aboard Endeavour once a new outdoor porch is attached to the Japanese lab for experiments. NASA wants to avoid dumping Endeavour's waste water overboard, once the porch is installed right in the line of fire.

Speaking of waste, the shuttle guests will be welcome to drink the station's recycled water, made from the station crew's sweat and urine. Station residents have been sipping it since last month and regularly use it for cooking.

One of the space station docs, Michael Barratt, gives it good reviews.

"It's probably as good as or better than anything you would buy out of a fancy bottle on the ground," he said last week from orbit.

With so many astronauts, it's seems only natural that the crowd include the 500th person to fly in space. Christopher Cassidy will snag the honors the moment Endeavour reaches space.

Canada, meanwhile, will celebrate having two of its own in space at the same time, Thirsk and Julie Payette.

Payette seemed piqued when a male reporter pointed out two weeks ago that she would be the lone woman.

"The good news is that nobody's going to steal my hair band," she responded.