Crew climbs into space shuttle for launch

The shuttle Endeavour astronauts scrambled aboard their spaceship on Sunday, hoping to break a string of launch delays and begin a 16-day mission to deliver a Japanese-built porch to the International Space Stationm, Reuters reported.

Commander Mark Polansky, a two-time shuttle veteran, was first aboard. He settled into the left-side seat on Endeavour's flight deck to begin a series of equipment and communication checks prior to the shuttle's scheduled 7:13 p.m. EDT (2313 GMT) liftoff.

Two launch attempts last month were scuttled by hydrogen fuel leaks and a third try on Saturday ended when NASA ordered checks of the shuttle's electrical systems following a spate of lightning strikes at the launch pad on Friday.

Endeavour's primary cargo is a porch for Japan's $2.4 billion Kibo laboratory complex. The platform can be used to expose experiments to the open environment of space.

A small robotic crane will be able to retrieve and service experiments on the platform without time-consuming and potentially dangerous spacewalks by space station crewmembers.

"This is the last flight to round out Kibo," NASA payload manager Scott Higginbotham said. "This means the end of a very long journey for us and Japan."

NASA launched the first section of the elaborate three-part complex in March 2008 and the second section two month later.

The porch is scheduled to be installed during the first of five spacewalks planned during Endeavour's 12-day stay at the outpost, a $100 billion project of 16 nations.

The shuttle also is carrying replacement batteries for the solar-powered station and spare parts that will be needed to keep the outpost operational after the shuttle fleet is retired next year.

The space station has been under construction 225 miles (360 km) above Earth for more than a decade. It consists of nearly 26,000 cubic feet (735 cubic metres) of pressurized space, about as much room as a typical four-bedroom house.

NASA plans to complete construction of the station by Sept. 30, 2010, and retire its three space shuttles. The agency then plans to ramp up development of new capsule-style spaceships that can carry astronauts to the moon as well as to the station.

One of the Endeavour crew's first tasks will be to transfer astronaut Timothy Kopra to the space station crew. He replaces Japan's Koichi Wakata, who has been aboard the outpost since March.

Wakata will return to Earth with Polansky and the rest of the Endeavour crew -- pilot Doug Hurley, David Wolf, Christopher Cassidy, Tom Marshburn and Canadian Julie Payette -- on July 28. (Editing by Jim Loney and Bill Trott)

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