CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – They may be light on space experience, but the seven astronauts set to launch aboard NASA's shuttle Discovery on Saturday are raring to rocket into orbit.
Commanded by veteran astronaut Mark Kelly — one of just two seasoned space-flyers on the shuttle's crew — Discovery is poised to launch Saturday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to deliver Japan's $1 billion Kibo laboratory to the international space station.
"My crew's ready," Kelly said this week after arriving at the Florida spaceport with his crewmates. "We've been training for a year and we're really looking forward to launch on Saturday."
Discovery's six-man, one-woman crew is slated to spend two weeks in space delivering the tour bus-sized Kibo laboratory, performing maintenance and swapping out one member of the station's three-man crew. The astronauts are even packing some spare parts for the space station's balky space toilet, with liftoff set for 5:02 p.m. EDT on Saturday.
Here's a brief look at each of the astronauts set to launch aboard Discovery's STS-124 mission:
Hailing from West Orange, N.J., Kelly is a commander in the U.S. Navy and veteran of two shuttle flights, though Discovery's STS-124 mission will mark his first as commander. He flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm and served as a test pilot before joining NASA's astronaut corps in 1996.
Kelly, 44, has more than 375 carrier landings under his belt and spent 25 days in space during his two shuttle missions as pilot — the last being NASA's second return-to-flight test mission, STS-121, that followed the Columbia tragedy. As commander, he's worked to ensure his crew is rested and ready for their challenging mission.
"There's a lot of other stuff that I have to pay attention to now that I didn't when I was the pilot," said Kelly, whose identical twin brother, Scott Kelly, also is a Navy commander and veteran astronaut. "But it's fun. I like it."
Kelly has two daughters, ages 13 and 10, and is married to Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Saturday's planned launch will be a particularly auspicious day in his family, he added.
"It's a good day to launch; it's my dad's birthday," said Kelly, whose father, Richard, will turn 68. "So he'll be happy about that."
Kelly is hoping to finally snap a good photo of Mt. Everest from space during his free time after being thwarted on previous flights.
"Maybe third time's a charm on this one," he said.
U.S. Navy commander Ken Ham, 43, is making his first trip to space as Discovery's pilot after 10 years serving in NASA's astronaut ranks.
"It's been a long time," said Ham, whose call sign is "Hock," but added that the wait has been worth it. "Yes, without a doubt."
With more than 300 carrier landings under his belt, Ham flew combat missions over North Iraq and Bosnia and served as a Navy test pilot to help develop the F/18 Super Hornet attack aircraft before joining NASA's astronaut corps in 1998.
During Discovery's STS-124 mission, Ham will wield the shuttle's robotic arm and serve as a choreographer for the mission's three planned spacewalks to deliver Kibo. His job is to make sure the spacewalkers are on track and that they don't go outside and find themselves with the wrong tools for the job.
"I'm going to try my best to not let that happen." Ham said. A native of Plainfield, N.J., Ham has a wife, Michelle, and two teenage sons.
The Robotic Arm Triple Play
Discovery's mission specialist 1 is Karen Nyberg, a first-time space-flyer from Vining, Minn., who will become the 50th woman to reach space when the shuttle launches into orbit.
"What I'm really looking forward to is the time when we're not counting anymore," said Nyberg, whose flight occurs near the 45th anniversary of the launch of Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
A mechanical engineer with a penchant for art and crafting, Nyberg joined NASA's space-flying ranks in 2000 and will be the first astronaut to wield three different robotic arms — those of the shuttle, the space station and the Kibo — in a single spaceflight. She will miss her two beloved dogs during the flight but is looking forward to her first views from space.
"It's hard for me to imagine just how beautiful it probably is," said Nyberg, who has pursued an astronaut career since her childhood and was accepted on the first try. "I was very lucky."
Mission specialist 2 for Discovery's flight is U.S. Air Force Col. Ron Garan, who is making his first spaceflight since joining NASA's astronaut corps in 2000.
"I'm doing my fantasy job right now, my dream job," said Garan, 46, in a NASA interview. "This is all I ever wanted to do and I'm really fortunate to do that."
A native of Yonkers, N.Y., Garan will make his orbital debut as one of Discovery's two STS-124 spacewalkers to help install the Kibo laboratory.
"We're looking forward to going outside and hooking it up," Garan said from Discovery's launch site this week, adding that the new orbital lab is the culmination of more than 20 years of work in Japan.
Garan has a wife, Carmel, and three sons: two twins, 17, and a 13-year-old.
Orbital Construction Chief
Veteran spacewalker Mike Fossum, Discovery's mission specialist 3, is the shuttle crew's only other member to fly in space before besides Kelly. He joined the astronaut corps in 1998 and last flew in 2006 during the STS-121 mission, with Kelly as pilot. He will lead the three planned STS-124 spacewalks.
A dedicated Boy Scouts scout master and Eagle Scout, Fossum, 50, has a wife, Melanie, a daughter, 23, and three sons, ages 21, 17 and 11. As one of the two senior astronauts, he's been sharing some of the intricacies of spaceflight that space-flyers may not learn in regular training.
An example: Choose your menu wisely. "I, for instance, will never [try in space] seafood gumbo again," Fossum said, adding that it's one of his favorite dishes on Earth. "But up there, it just didn't seem right."
Fossum hails from McAllen, Texas, and is looking forward to his role in adding a room to the space station.
"To have the chance to be one of the guys to be bolting her together, that's just a huge privilege for me," said Fossum, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force reserve. "If a car can be beautiful, the Kibo module can be beautiful."
The Hope of Japan
Japanese astronaut Akihiko "Aki" Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is making his first spaceflight as mission specialist 4 aboard Discovery. A station robotic arm operator, he will open JAXA's Kibo laboratory for business after attaching it to the space station.
"We're hoping to accomplish a lot of scientific experiments on board," said Hoshide, 39, in a NASA interview. "It's a big milestone for Japan."
Space Station's New Tenant
Rounding out Discovery's crew is mission specialist 5, Gregory Chamitoff, whose first spaceflight will be much longer than that of the rest of his shuttle crewmates.
Chamitoff, a NASA astronaut born in Montreal, Canada, is set to begin a six-month mission to the space station as a flight engineer with the outpost's Expedition 17 crew. He will replace fellow NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who has lived aboard the station since March.
"I feel very lucky to be part of this crew and part of this mission," said Chamitoff, 45, a planetary geologist and engineer.
Reaching space has been a lifelong goal for Chamitoff that began when his father took his family to see the launch of Apollo 11, NASA's first mission to land on the moon, in July 1969.
"I told him then that that's what I want to do and kind of never gave up on that," Chamitoff said in a NASA interview. "I have to admit that I kind of grew up on 'Star Trek.'"
Chamitoff and his wife, Chantal, have 3-year-old fraternal twins, Natasha and Dmitri, though his son seems to think he will launch into space with dad.
"They know there's a space station and that I'm going to it, and it's up in the sky," said Chamitoff, adding that Dmitri has been running around the house wearing a miniature spacesuit.
"He thinks he's going ... maybe next time or something."
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