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Space station to get its largest lab

The shuttle launch Saturday, carrying the new module, is a key step for Japan’s space program.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2008

Space shuttle Discovery mission specialists, Akihiko Hoshide of Japan, left, Karen Nyberg, center, and Ron Garan are all smiles after arrival at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Wednesday.

Terry Renna/AP


US and Japanese astronauts are getting set to deliver the International Space Station’s scientific crown jewel, Japan’s “Kibo” laboratory, to the orbiting outpost.

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Late Saturday afternoon, the space shuttle Discovery is scheduled for launch with the 16-ton lab module tucked in its cargo bay. If all goes well, the shuttle and space-station crews will install and activate the lab, as well as perform station-maintenance jobs, during 13 days on orbit.

A successful mission would represent a significant step for Japan’s space program, according to Akihiko Hoshide, one of four mission specialists on the shuttle crew and the mission’s payload commander.

“This is really a mission to make a dream come true,” he said during a press briefing earlier this month. For 20 years, teams in Japan have designed and built what US colleagues have dubbed a “beautiful piece of work.” For his country, he said, lofting the lab “is not the goal, it’s the beginning.”

One signal that the international partners – eager to put their labs to use – see light at the end of the modules comes in fresh recruitment campaigns for astronauts.

In April, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced it was accepting applications for astronauts, according to Masafumi Yamamoto, who heads JAXA’s liaison office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We look forward to receiving a lot of applications,” he says.

Canada and Europe have followed suit, announcing astronaut recruitment campaigns within the past two weeks. For now, however, the main focus is installing Kibo.

The 100-billion-yen module is the largest of the station’s labs, and boasts capabilities no other lab module duplicates. Like other lab modules, it will host racks of experiments inside. But Kibo also has been designed with an outside platform at one end for experiments requiring exposure to space.