Astronauts board shuttle for flight to space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Five astronauts boarded space shuttle Endeavour on Thursday for a late-night launch on a mission to deliver giant solar panels to the international space station.

Perfect weather was forecast for the 10:06 p.m. liftoff.

NASA had to put out a small grass fire near the launch pad and remove a loose bracket before commander Brent Jett Jr. and his crew could climb aboard Endeavour.

Launch managers dispatched a fire truck to the pad as soon as the fire broke out Thursday evening. It was extinguished within a few minutes.

Earlier in the day, NASA delayed fueling Endeavour by two hours so technicians could remove a bracket that was dangling from the pad. NASA feared the metal bracket could break off and strike Endeavour's wing at liftoff.

The bracket is supposed to hold up a water pipe on the outside of the walkway room used by astronauts to board the shuttle. It was seen dangling during a routine inspection, said NASA spokesman George Diller. Another loose bracket nearby was replaced.

During the last shuttle countdown, in October, a 4-inch pin was left on Discovery's external fuel tank and delayed the flight by one day. To avoid another embarrassing last-minute discovery this time, NASA had technicians check the pad more thoroughly for tools and other stray objects.

NASA had only about 2 hours to remove the bracket and still have enough time to fuel the shuttle and make the liftoff. The launch window lasts only a few minutes in order for Endeavour to use the least amount of fuel to reach the international space station, Alpha.

The world's largest, most powerful set of spacecraft solar wings are packed aboard Endeavour. The shuttle astronauts will attach the wings to the space station; once unfurled, the panels will stretch 240 feet from tip to tip and 38 feet across, constituting the largest structure ever deployed in space.

The electricity-producing solar wings will provide the power necessary to open up the entire station and to run the U.S.-made laboratory section when it arrives in January. Alpha's three residents have been confined to two of the station's three rooms because of insufficient power for heating.

Station commander Bill Shepherd and his Russian crew have been living on Alpha for the past month. The Endeavour astronauts will be their first visitors.

The shuttle astronauts are taking up Christmas presents for Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev from their families, as well as fresh fruit and hot sauce - an order put in by Shepherd.

Shepherd and his crew are not due back on Earth until February. The shuttle astronauts will be away 11 days.


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