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.
"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.
For now, however, all eyes are on Endeavour's mission. If it is successful, it would take the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a big step closer to finishing the station and ending America's shuttle program in 2010. Since the shuttles returned to flight in 2005 following the Columbia disaster, each succeeding space-station construction mission has earned an "extremely complex" label, says William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate director for space operations. "This mission is just as complex as the other ones."
At 16 days, the mission is longer than any similar one in the past. And with five spacewalks planned, astronauts will spend more time outside the hatch than on any previous space-station construction step.
In addition to installing the Japanese logistics module, astronauts will build a robot "kit," dubbed Dextre, and install it on the space station. It's the final hardware contribution from Canada, which already has supplied the shuttle's robotic arm and a similar arm for the space station.
Part technology demonstration, part space-station handyman, the robot looks like a headless, legless stick figure and tips the scales at just over 1-1/2 tons. It will sit on a mobile platform that scoots along the station's truss, or backbone. Each arm can stretch to 11 feet. Each "hand" can exert a gentle touch – down to about 1-1/2 pounds of pressure. It has the digital brains to know when operators are asking for too much pressure for the task. In that case, it won't continue to tighten its grip.
Complete with its own handyman's tool belt, the robot will be able to handle tools and objects ranging in size from a phone booth to a phone book, he says. The goal is to relieve astronauts of the need for some of the more mundane maintenance on the station's exterior.
When spacewalks are required, Dextre will be able to move materials to the work location ahead of time, increasing the efficiency of each spacewalk. Eventually, controllers on the ground will run Dextre, leaving the space station's crew free to focus on the research they will conduct.
The last time a mission included five spacewalks, astronauts were repairing the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002, notes Richard Linnehan, this mission's lead spacewalker. Working on Hubble "was almost like a surgical kind of thing," he says. This mission "is much more physically strenuous ... like being a longshoreman."
Although the spacewalks don't fall on consecutive days, in between each walk astronauts will be using the robotic arms extensively and readying spacesuits for their next outing.
This mission "dwarfs previous flights on robotic operations," says Mr. Gorie, a retired Navy captain. "And nobody's done five EVAs with this amount of robotics work."