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Endeavour All Set For Final Night Launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Setting aside uncertainty and angst about NASA's future, Kennedy Space Center teams are counting down toward the launch of shuttle Endeavour and six astronauts at 4:39 a.m. Sunday.

Mission managers gave a unanimous "go" for launch Friday morning. The forecast calls for windy and chilly conditions, but an 80-percent chance of weather good enough for the last scheduled night launch by a shuttle.

"It'll be a beautiful launch," said Mike Leinbach, the shuttle launch director. "You'll see it all the way up the East Coast."

The 13-day mission is the first of the final five planned this year, a reality anticipated for years but made final in the proposed 2011 fiscal year budget released Monday by the Obama administration.

While the budget shocked many of the agency's human spaceflight employees with its plan to cancel the Constellation moon rocket program, it also ended speculation about an extension for the shuttle program, remote as that possibility was.

"We knew it was coming, but when you finally get that final word, then there is no turning back," said Leinbach. "This is it. And people are coming to grips with that now."

Endeavour is embarking on the last major International Space Station construction mission, hauling up the Tranquility module and a dome-shaped observation deck featuring seven windows.

The Italian-built module and attached "cupola" cost over $400 million and weigh 13.5 tons secured in the shuttle's payload bay.

Tranquility will house life support systems on the station's U.S. segment, including equipment for air and water purification, along with some exercise machines and a bathroom.

That relocated gear will free up space for research in the Destiny lab.

The cupola - which will be moved from the module's end to its Earth-facing side during the mission - will serve as a robotics station and offer panoramic views of home and outer space.

Once the new rooms are installed and activated with the help of three spacewalks and a series of robotic arm maneuvers, station construction will be 90 percent complete.

"People working the (space station program) today are really feeling a great sense of achievement, because here again we are meeting a major milestone that we have put in front of us," said Bernardo Patti, the European Space Agency's station program manager.

Like Sunday morning's blastoff, most of the mission's work will take place during the "night shift," as commander George Zamka joked upon arriving at Kennedy late Tuesday.

He'll board Endeavour just after 1 a.m. Sunday with pilot Terry Virts, a first-time flyer, and veteran mission specialists Bob Behnken, Kay Hire, Nicholas Patrick and Steve Robinson.

Workers plan to roll open the shuttle launch pad's rotating tower into its launch position Saturday morning.

Fueling of the shuttle's 15-story external tank with more than 500,000 gallons of super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen is set to begin Saturday evening.

Despite employees' concern about life after the shuttle, Leinbach said his teams are focused and "energized" for Endeavour's launch, which falls on Super Bowl Sunday.

"It'll be a special day," he said. "We're going to launch Sunday morning, and you'll be able to watch the big game Sunday night."

Continuing with a football analogy, Leinbach likened the shuttle workforce to a professional team totally focused on "the game" whether working on the shuttle or at a Launch Control Center console.

"We'll see what the future brings to us, but we're going to play this game to the very end, until the final whistle blows," he said.

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