Shuttle launch to prepare for Europe station debut

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Oct 22 (Reuters) The launch of space shuttle Discovery, set for Tuesday, kicks off a two-month refurbishment of the International Space Station that will give Europe its first permanent laboratory in orbit, NASA said.

Liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was set for 11:38 am (LOCAL TIME), though meteorologists today increased the chance of a delay from 40 per cent to 60 per cent due to clouds and possible showers.

The launch team reported no technical problems and was pressing ahead with preparations, NASA launch manager Stephen Payne told a news conference today.

Discovery's 14-day flight is tied to the long-awaited arrival of the Columbus laboratory, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) main contribution to the space station program.

NASA has scheduled Columbus' launch aboard shuttle Atlantis for December 6, five years behind schedule.

Columbus already has cost ESA 5 billion euros 7.08 billion dollars with another 4 billion euros (5.66 billion dollars) to come, said Alan Thirkettle, Europe's space station program manager.

Program managers hope the investment will galvanize medical research, technological development and, crucially, inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists, Thirkettle said.

''We're not going to develop as a continent with financial services and tourism,'' he said.

First, though, Columbus needs a berthing port at the orbital outpost, a construction job that falls to Discovery commander Pamela Melroy and her six crewmates.

The astronauts will work with newly arrived station commander Peggy Whitson, flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko and station crew member Clay Anderson, to install a vestibule named Harmony that will act as the station's second connection node.

''It's the gateway to the international partners,'' said space station flight director Derek Hassman. ''As the station is configured today, there's nowhere to put all the international partner modules until we deliver and activate (Harmony). That's the piece that makes the rest possible.'' SHELL GAME The astronauts also will move a huge pair of solar panels to a new location on the station's backbone, a daunting task that will push the station's robotic crane to its limit.

''This is an enormous piece of hardware, I believe on the order of 35,000 pounds, so very precise robotic flying is involved for the crew inside and a lot of coordination between the spacewalkers and them,'' said lead spacewalker Scott Parazynski, who will be making his fifth shuttle flight.

Once Discovery departs the station the Harmony module must be moved prior to shuttle Atlantis's arrival with Columbus because its docking port stands where Harmony will be positioned.

The crew must install the node in a temporary location and once the shuttle departs, the station astronauts will use the robot arm to move a docking port from the Destiny laboratory onto Harmony, then put Harmony at the end of the lab.

''It's kind of a shell game,'' said shuttle flight director Rick LaBrode.

Five spacewalks are planned during Discovery's flight, including one devoted to testing a technique to repair the shuttle's heat shield in orbit.

''Our flight, as all the flights that are happening right now, is really important for the buildup of the International Space Station,'' said Discovery crew member Paolo Nespoli, an Italian astronaut with ESA.

Reuters AK VP0150

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