CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA began the countdown Tuesday for the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, which will be heading back to the international space station with a new crew and fresh load of supplies.
Liftoff is set for Friday.
"It's been just four months since the last time we launched Atlantis, and we're anxious to get back at it again," said NASA test director Jeff Spaulding.
This time, astronauts and cosmonauts will visit a space station that is nearly double in size.
The seven shuttle crew members will be the first to enter the newly attached Russian control module, Zvezda, in orbit. They will unload supplies from Atlantis and a Russian cargo ship that's already docked to the 230-mile-high station, and hook up equipment to be used by the first permanent crew, due to arrive at the beginning of November.
Atlantis' flight kicks off a quick succession of shuttle missions to finish building the space station, which has been bogged down by Russia's economic problems. Zvezda, for instance, did not fly until July, more than two years late.
Counting this week's launch, three shuttle flights are planned to the space station between now and the end of the year. NASA expects to maintain that quick pace in 2001 and every year thereafter.
"There's an awful lot of launches coming up in the next year, and the space station's really going to be taking shape," astronaut Edward Lu said upon arriving at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday night. "We're all looking forward to getting this off on the right foot."
During the 11-day flight, Lu and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko will go outside to install cables between Zvezda and another Russian module. At one point, the spacewalkers will be about 110 feet from Atlantis - the farthest anyone has floated from the shuttle using tethers.
Forecasters put the odds of good launch weather Friday morning at 60 percent. Rain and clouds are the main concerns. Liftoff time is 8:45 a.m.
The only technical problem involved a navigation device at the space center that apparently was damaged by lightning over the weekend. NASA expects to have the unit fixed by Friday.
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