CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery will deliver and install Japan's massive lab, Kibo, or Hope, at the international space station.
A look at the six men and one woman who will tackle the job:
Commander Mark Kelly is probably best known for looking and sounding exactly like another astronaut — his identical twin brother, Scott, also a space shuttle skipper — and being married to a congresswoman.
He married U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in November.
As for who's the big shot in the family, Kelly quickly says, "She is."
The two have invited a number of Washington bigwigs to the shuttle launch, as well as family and friends.
This will be the third spaceflight for Kelly, 44, a Navy commander and former test pilot, but his first as commander. NASA picked him as an astronaut in 1996.
He flew 39 combat missions in the 1991 Gulf War.
Kelly has two daughters, ages 10 and 13, from his previous marriage. He is from West Orange, N.J.
Pilot Kenneth Ham, an astronaut for 10 years, is finally on the verge of reaching space.
The 43-year-old Navy commander said the long wait has been worth it — "without a doubt."
"Sometimes it's been a little challenging staying focused on why I'm here and especially what I'm doing," he said. "However, on the other hand, it's been an incredible blessing."
His Navy peers have probably spent at least half of the past 10 years "on a ship somewhere on the other side of the planet, away from their family and their kids," said Ham, whose sons are 14 and 15. "They've missed out on all the things I've gotten to see in raising Ryan and Randy. So I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I was their Little League coach and their soccer coach and was there on school night."
His sons are from a previous marriage to Linda Ham, a former high-level shuttle manager who was demoted following the 2003 Columbia disaster. Kenneth Ham has since remarried.
Ham — born in Plainfield, N.J. — was one of the Navy's first F/A-18 Super Hornet test pilots.
Karen Nyberg will become the 50th woman to fly in space.
Her first flight will precede by just a few weeks the 45th anniversary of the first woman in space, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, and the 25th anniversary of the first American woman in space, Sally Ride.
"What I'm really looking forward to is the time when we're not counting anymore," Nyberg said.
Nyberg, 38, a mechanical engineer, decided in elementary school she wanted to be an astronaut. She grew up with two brothers and three sisters in Vining, Minn., the type of place characterized by Garrison Keillor in his "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show. "I'm from a Norwegian background, went to the Lutheran church, had the potluck dinners in the basement," she said, laughing.
Nyberg started out as a college intern at Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1991. She received a patent for a robot intended to help spacewalking astronauts and went on to earn a doctorate and secure a full-time NASA job. NASA picked her as an astronaut in 2000 on her first try. She will become the first person to operate three robot arms in orbit: the shuttle's, the station's and the one on the new Japanese lab.
Nyberg, who is single, is taking into space a few pieces of fabric to make into a quilt after the shuttle mission.
Michael Fossum is returning to space as the lead spacewalker.
He will perform three spacewalks to install the new Japanese lab, Kibo, on the space station, replace a nitrogen gas tank, and take a stab at cleaning a clogged solar-wing rotating joint.
"This time, I'm much more settled in. There's much less fear of the unknown," said Fossum, 50, an engineer and colonel in the Air Force Reserves.
Fossum said he can't wait to look out the space shuttle windows, like he did last time, at God's handiwork. After blasting into orbit in 2006 for the first time, "it sort of struck me, looking at the North Atlantic and the black sky and a little thin band of atmosphere, that this is the kind of view that God has looking down."
As soon as he returned from space, he told wife Melanie: "Be forewarned. I want to go back." This will be his second and, in all likelihood, last space mission.
The couple has four children ages 11 to 23. His main hobby is serving as a Boy Scout scoutmaster.
Fossum grew up in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. He served in the Air Force and resigned from active duty in 1992 to work for NASA. He took part in an extensive redesign of the space station in 1993 and, five years later, became an astronaut.
Air Force Col. Ronald Garan Jr. was trained as a space shuttle pilot, but agreed to give up the cockpit controls to secure one of the dwindling number of flight assignments.
He will serve as a mission specialist aboard Discovery and perform three spacewalks.
"I certainly don't feel cheated," he said.
He remembers the day he decided to become an astronaut: July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. He was 7 years old and growing up in Yonkers, N.Y.
Now 46, Garan, the father of three teenage sons, including identical twins, is about to make his first trip to space. When he's not so busy, he likes to coach football and baseball, and teach Sunday school.
"Faith plays a big part in what I do," he said. "I don't consider myself a daredevil at all. I don't take extra risks. I'm not one that drives fast cars and fast motorcycles. ... I'm doing this because I really, truly believe that we are making a big impact on our Earth and for all the people of the world."
Garan was a F-16 combat pilot before and during the Gulf War. He went on to test pilot school and was chosen as an astronaut by NASA in 2000.
Gregory Chamitoff will move into the international space station for a six-month stay.
"I'm really looking forward to just living in space, just being there long enough to really feel what it's like to live there," he said. "I think really the hardest thing about the whole thing is going to be missing my kids for that length of time."
Twins Natasha and Dimitri are 3. Chamitoff hopes there won't be any delays that would prevent him from being home for their 4th birthday in January. But he will miss election day in November; he'll vote from space via an absentee ballot
Chamitoff, 45, the grandson of Russian immigrants to Canada, has four degrees, including a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics. He joined Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1995, working on computer software applications for spacecraft. NASA picked him as an astronaut in 1998. This will be his first spaceflight.
In July 1969, when he was 6, the family took a vacation from Montreal to Florida and got to see the launch of Apollo 11. "'Dad, I really want to do this. This is what I'm going to do,' " he told his father. The family moved to San Jose, Calif., five years later.
Chamitoff's wife, Dr. Chantal Caviness, a pediatrician, is finishing a book about infertility. He hopes to take up a manuscript to read in orbit.
Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide spent four years living in Fort Lee, N.J., as a young boy during the 1960s. His father was a Japanese businessman.
A family vacation to the Kennedy Space Center ignited his interest in space.
"We saw a bunch of rockets, including the Saturn V" moon rocket, he said. " 'Star Trek' was on TV, and I was a huge fan of it, so that stated my dream of really wanting to go up there and work there as an astronaut."
He's honored to accompany his country's Kibo lab to the space station and attach it. It will be his first trip to space.
"This is a big milestone for the Japanese community," he said, noting that some people have worked on Kibo, which means "hope," for more than 20 years. "This is really a mission to make the dream come true. It's the same for me."
The Tokyo-born Hoshide, who is married, joined the Japanese Space Agency in 1992 as an engineer. The 39-year-old became an astronaut in 1999.