Seven astronauts are set to rocket toward the International Space Station aboard NASA's shuttle Endeavour next week to help outfit the orbiting laboratory to support double-sized crews.

Endeavour commander Chris Ferguson and his STS-126 astronaut crew are poised to launch toward the station on Nov. 14 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Liftoff is set for 7:55 p.m. EST (0055 Nov. 15 GMT) to kick off a packed 15-day mission dedicated to space station maintenance and expansion.

"It is indeed an extremely packed timeline," Ferguson told reporters in a Monday briefing, adding that his crew is ready. "I think everybody is very well-versed in the activities they need to do, and when they need to do them to get the job done."

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A veteran of one spaceflight, Ferguson will lead Endeavour's five-man, two-woman crew on a busy mission that includes a one-astronaut swap for the station's three-person crew, the delivery of new gear designed to double the outpost's crew sizes next year, and four complicated spacewalks to clean and grease up a massive — but damaged — solar array joint.

Endeavour's crew is hauling a second kitchen, extra bathroom, two sleeping compartments, new exercise equipment and a water recycling system that will allow station astronauts recycle and purify wastewater and urine into potable drinking water.

The astronauts will also deliver the space station's first-ever refrigerator.

"The Expedition 18 crew are very excited to be the first to have refrigerated drinks and food items on ISS," said Endeavour launch package manager Kevin Engelbert of the station's current commander Michael Fincke and flight engineers Greg Chamitoff and Yury Lonchakov.

The mission will also ferry astronaut Sandra Magnus to the space station, where she'll replace Chamitoff as a member of the Expedition 18 crew until her own relief arrives early next year.

In addition to Ferguson and Magnus, shuttle pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Don Petit, Steve Bowen, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Shane Kimbrough will fly aboard Endeavour next week.

Milestone mission

Endeavour's mission will mark NASA's fourth shuttle flight this year, the most since 2002, and a milestone in the nearly decade-old International Space Station.

"[This mission] is a major step for the program where we bring up the hardware that is necessary to allow us to transition to a six-person crew," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager.

Not only will larger crews be better equipped to handle daily maintenance of the growing station, they will also be able to accomplish more scientific research, Suffredini said, adding that the first six-person crew is slated to reach full strength in May 2009.

The four spacewalks are also vital, Suffredini explained, because they are aimed at cleaning and greasing up a vital gear on the station's right side.

The 10-foot (3-meter) wide gear is designed to rotate the station's starboard solar arrays so they continuously track the sun to maximize power production. But metal grit has damaged the gear, forcing engineers to move the starboard arrays only intermittently.

Endeavour astronauts plan to use all four spacewalks to methodically clean the gear of grit, add a fresh coat of grease and replace 11 bearings during the mission. They are also expected to grease up the portside solar array gear, which has been working perfectly, just for good measure.

Mission managers and the astronauts both expressed utmost confidence that the maintenance and repair work would do the trick.

Endeavour's crew are also preparing for a pair of other milestones during their flight.

The astronauts will be in space for the 10th anniversary of launch of the space station's first module, Russia's Zarya control module, on Nov. 20 and celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday after undocking from the orbiting lab.

"We are rumored to have stowed away at least seven turkey dinners," Ferguson said with a smile.

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