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Shuttle Endeavour's next mission boasts most partners yet

Endeavour is set to launch Tuesday, carrying a Japanese astronaut and the first module of Japan's future space laboratory.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 10, 2008

Japanese first: Japanese space agency representatives showed off a model of the Japanese Aerospace Agency’s module at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday. It is scheduled for liftoff on the Space Shuttle Endeavour Tuesday.

terry renna/ap

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The International Space Station is poised to welcome Japan, the last of the program's major partners, to the final frontier.

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During the predawn hours Tuesday, the space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled for launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The orbiter is carrying the first of three modules that will become Japan's orbiting laboratory in space.

The mission marks a fresh chapter in Japan's human spaceflight effort, as it steps out of the shadows long cast by the US, Russia, and Europe in building and staffing shirt-sleeve labs on orbit.

"This is a monumental occasion for Japan, because JAXA will be soon a visible partner on orbit for the first time in history," says Tetsuro Yokoyama, deputy project manager for operations for Kibo, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) laboratory on the space station.

When Endeavour docks with the station and the station and shuttle crews crack the hatch, it will mark the first time that all major partners have crew members swapping handshakes and hugs. Endeavour's seven-member crew includes JAXA astronaut Takao Doi, who is slated to install his country's pressurized storage module and oversee the setup operation inside. Dr. Doi made his first trip to space in the shuttle Columbia in 1997, when he became the first Japanese astronaut to take part in a spacewalk.

"In the past, we'd been sort of going it alone with the Russians ... and now, with this many partners, it gives you a connection to the entire planet," says mission commander Dominic Gorie.

The launch comes at a time of increasing activity around the station. For years, Russia's Progress unmanned craft have brought fresh supplies, fuel, and air to the station, helped keep it in its proper orbit, and relieved it of trash. On Sunday morning, the European Space Agency launched "Jules Verne," its first automated transfer vehicle (ATV). The ATV will perform the same role as the Progress vehicles, but with a larger capacity.

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