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The crew members of STS-118. Pictured from the left are mission specialists Richard A. (Rick) Mastracchio, Barbara R. Morgan, Pilot Charles O. Hobaugh, Commander Scott J. Kelly and mission specialists Tracy E. Caldwell, Canadian Space Agency's Dafydd R. (Dave) Williams, and Alvin Drew Jr. (NASA The crew members of STS-118. Pictured from the left are mission specialists Richard A. (Rick) Mastracchio, Barbara R. Morgan, Pilot Charles O. Hobaugh, Commander Scott J. Kelly and mission specialists Tracy E. Caldwell, Canadian Space Agency's Dafydd R. (Dave) Williams, and Alvin Drew Jr. (NASA)

In Depth

Space

Space shuttle mission STS-118

Dave Williams to set Canadian spacewalk record, Barbara Morgan to make orbital trip

Last Updated August 8, 2007

For an agency so dependent on science and technology, one that can afford to leave nothing to chance, NASA sometimes exhibits a surprising degree of superstition. True to form, NASA was hoping No. 7 would prove lucky for the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, originally scheduling liftoff of its seven astronauts for Aug. 7, 2007 at 7 p.m. ET.

But as is often the case in the fickle world of space flight, superstition had to give way to practicality when a fix to a cabin leak forced NASA to move the flight time to Aug. 8 at 6:36 p.m. ET.

Among the crew is Canadian Dave Williams, who should spacewalk his way into the record books on this, his second shuttle flight. Williams is scheduled to take three spacewalks, one more than any Canadian before him. His three will double the total number of spacewalks performed by Canadians — Chris Hadfield made two spacewalks during a 2001 mission and Steve MacLean did one last year.

NASA promotes this flight as a stepping-stone to an exciting future. According to the mission overview, the flight involves "putting the International Space Station a step closer to completion and gathering experience that will help people return to the moon and go on to Mars."

"The mission has lots of angles," Matt Abbott, lead shuttle flight director, said on NASA's website. "There's a little bit of assembly, there's some resupply, there's some repairs, and there are some high-visibility education and public-affairs events. It's a little bit of everything."

That "little bit of assembly" isn't so little. It involves attaching a new piece to the International Space Station that will help operate the station's solar panels. NASA calls the piece "relatively small" — it weighs approximately 5,000 pounds. Dave Williams is to do a lot of the work to attach it.

Part of Williams's spacewalking time is to be spent on final assembly of the piece after the Canadarm moves it into place.

It's a bit of a career change for Williams, a former emergency-room doctor.

"I've gone from a neuroscientist doing surgery in space to going outside and driving bolts, taking big structures and bringing them up to the space station and docking them and mating them together," he said, laughing.

Education in orbit

Another of the mission's goals is to take positive steps in building on the tragic legacy of Christa McAuliffe and the short-lived Teacher in Space Project. McAuliffe, a 37-year-old schoolteacher from Massachusetts, beat out 11,000 other applicants to become the first teacher, and first civilian, to reach space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. She and six astronauts died when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight in January 1986.

The Teacher in Space Project was immediately suspended, but Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup for the Challenger mission, will now kick-start that program's new incarnation, the Educator Astronaut Project.

Morgan trained alongside McAuliffe for the Challenger flight and in 1998 jumped at the offer to become a career astronaut. As a mission specialist on the Endeavour trip, she is set to teach several lessons via video broadcast, including parts of McAuliffe's original curriculum, including question-and-answer sessions with elementary school students and a variety of science experiments for students up to elementary and high schools.

Year of scandal

A successful flight for Morgan would also provide a public relations boost to a manned space program plagued by scandals and delays this year.

These include the February arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak on charges she tried to kidnap the girlfriend of another astronaut, a freak hailstorm that damaged the fuel tank of Atlantis and delayed its launch date by three month,s and a computer failure aboard the international space station that knocked out some of the station's orientation systems and air filters.

Less than two weeks before Endeavour's expected launch, two more scandals made headlines. On July 27 NASA released a review of the astronaut health-care system that found officials ignored senior flight surgeons that raised concerns about astronauts who were drunk or facing other medical or behavioural problems that could have caused mission problems.

And a day earlier, NASA also revealed that a space program worker had deliberately damaged a computer to be taken to the International Space Station on Endeavour. NASA said it hopes to fix the computer and take it on the station as planned.

A powerful Endeavour

Endeavour's mission is currently scheduled for 11 days, but could go as many as 14, thanks to a new power system that allows the shuttle to draw juice from the space station. NASA has expressed hope that the Station-Shuttle Power Transfer System could eventually allow shuttle missions to stay in orbit for as many as six extra days, which could become very handy as station construction continues.

While the Endeavour is expected to borrow some power from the space station, it will give plenty back. Since this is the last dedicated shuttle mission providing cargo to the station for at least a year, it's taking tons of supplies with it.

"I think right now, the manifest has us bringing up about 5,000 pounds and then bringing down about 5,000 pounds," said commander Scott Kelly. "It's a lot of spare parts, food, clothing, scientific experiments. We'll unload that and then reload it with stuff that needs to come home — garbage, spare parts that are no longer needed on the station."

At $1.7 billion US, the Endeavour is the world's costliest equivalent to a pickup truck, at least on the return trip. But if all goes well in orbit, the mission should help pave a path to a future among the stars.

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