(earthtimes) - Final preparations are underway at the Kennedy Space Center for the next space shuttle Discovery's launch on December 7. The crew includes five rookie astronauts and two who have shared earlier missions to the international space station, all of whom arrived here Sunday in T-38 trainer jets, reports Trend.
NASA's next space shuttle will be launched at night in a bid to complete construction work on the space station on schedule. The space agency had been forced to restrict all shuttle mission to 'daytime launch only' following the tragic accident with 2003 space shuttle Columbia. Falling debris from the fuel tank had hit the shuttle's side rupturing its heat shield at liftoff which resulted in its complete destruction upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere 16 days later.
The new crew will be led by Commander Mark Polansky, 50, who has served as pilot of the 2001 space shuttle mission. Another veteran aboard the shuttle will be flight engineer Robert Burbeam, 44, who had shared the space shuttle flight with Polansky in 2001. Burbeam has also been part of three earlier space shuttle missions. He will also be conducting three space walks during which he will install a critical external truss of the space station. The structural piece is part of the shuttle's payload.
Assisting Burbeam from inside the shuttle will be pilot William Oefelein, 41, for whom this would be his first space launch. The crew includes Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang, 49, who will also participate in two space walks to rewire some external parts of the space station. Fuglesang trained as a space station flight engineer and Soyuz commander in Russia before joining the European Space Agency whom he now represents.
The remaining two crew members are former US Navy commander and combat helicopter and test pilot Sunita Williams, 41; engineering supervisor Joan Higginbotham, 42, who began her career working on space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center; and second robot arm operator Nicholas Patrick, 42. Williams will stay on at the space station replacing German astronaut Thomas Reiter who will return with the rest of the current crew on December 19.
The shuttle missions are part of efforts to complete construction work on the $100 billion space station before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
The night-time launch of the shuttle will restrict visibility to the many cameras placed around the launch site, so essential to spot any potential damage caused by falling debris.