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Astronauts prep for huge remodeling project

Published August 19, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL - Six astronauts embark on a home improvement project this month.

The crew of the shuttle Atlantis, set to launch Aug. 27, will be delivering a 35,000-pound addition to the half-built international space station. The astronauts will get a little help from robotic arms for the heavy lifting, but gripping screwdrivers and bolts in bulky pressurized spacesuits isn't easy.

"This has been described ... as one of the most difficult tasks ever attempted by humans, and I'm here to tell you that it seems like it's going to be that hard," said Mike Suffredini, NASA station program manager. "This has never been done before, the creation of a spacecraft in space."

The 17½-ton addition, costing $372-million, will be one of the heaviest payloads ever flown to space. The project is the beginning of an effort to finish work on the space station before the cargo-carrying shuttles are retired in 2010.

Construction has been delayed since the Columbia accident in 2003, which killed seven astronauts. The two space missions since that time have been considered test missions by NASA, checking out new safety improvements on the spacecraft.

With last month's highly successful flight of the shuttle Discovery, NASA has a laser focus on space station completion.

Atlantis Commander Brent Jett says more is at stake in finishing the international space lab than just building a place for science experiments. "It's preparing us as an agency to take the next step back to the moon for a permanent outpost or onto Mars," said Jett, who will be making his fourth space trip.

Jett said his crew will set the tone for the next four years of construction. The other crew members are pilot Chris Ferguson and mission specialists Joe Tanner, Dan Burbank, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency.

[Last modified August 19, 2006, 01:34:31]

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