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Shuttle Endeavour Ready for Saturday Launch

Shuttle Endeavour and seven astronauts are scheduled to blast off Saturday on a mission to the International Space Station that will include some of the most complicated assembly work ever attempted in orbit.

The weather is expected to be good for the 7:17 a.m. planned liftoff at Kennedy Space Center.

Five challenging spacewalks and dauntingly difficult crane operations are planned during the 16-day mission to complete assembly of the $1 billion Japanese Kibo science laboratory. And with a newly expanded crew of six already at the station, it will be the first time 13 people have been on a spacecraft simultaneously.

"It's like having your family descend on you for the holidays, right? And they're going to stay for a long time when they come, and they're bringing all their stuff," said NASA Mission Management Team Chairman Mike Moses.

"The shuttle crew, like I said, just comes barging in, and bringing all their toys with them."

The Endeavour astronauts plan a two-day journey to the station, which now weighs 327 tons. Sporting labs from the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan, the $100 billion outpost is 81 percent complete.

The shuttle is slated to dock at the station at 3:50 a.m. EDT Monday as the spacecraft soar 225 miles above western Brazil.

Coming up on Endeavour: an outdoor porch for microgravity science experiments.

Known as the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility, the box-shaped platform is 17 feet long, 16.4 feet wide and 12.5 feet tall. The four-ton pallet can accommodate 12 science experiments.

Putting it in place will be no easy task. The platform must be plucked from Endeavour's cargo bay with the shuttle's 50-foot robot arm so it can be attached to the end of the Kibo lab.

Crane operators will perform seven handoffs with the station's 57-foot arm, and some tricky twists and turns will be required.

Four astronauts — David Wolf, Tim Kopra, Christopher Cassidy and Tom Marshburn — will prep the Kibo lab for the addition, and they'll help mount science experiments on it.

Only eight station assembly missions remain before the 2010 retirement of the shuttle fleet, so the spacewalkers also will swap out 10-year-old batteries and stow large spare parts.

The crew also includes mission commander Mark Polansky, pilot Douglas Hurley and robot-arm operator Julie Payette of the Canadian Space Agency.

"We know it's a combination of a sprint and a marathon," Polansky said.

"It is going to be an action-packed flight," said Payette. "So if you're bored, please tune in."

Payette will join station flight engineer Bob Thirst in a historic first: the first time two Canadians have been in space simultaneously.

Kopra will stay on the station, replacing Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese astronaut to serve a long tour of duty on the outpost. He flew up on Discovery in March and will return on Endeavour.

The first two Kibo segments — the 37-foot-long lab and a pressurized storage attic — were launched in 2008. The completion of Kibo construction will cap a 20-year effort to design, develop, build, test and launch the largest of the station's labs.

If the shuttle launches on time, it would lead to a 12:18 a.m. landing June 29 at Kennedy Space Center.

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