NASA Crew Swapping Mission Ready

Monday, March 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - NASA began the countdown Monday for the first crew-swapping mission at the international space station.

Space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to blast off at sunrise Thursday with a crew of seven, three of whom will remain at the space station until at least July.

The shuttle is in excellent shape, but the cold could interfere.

Shuttle weather officer Ed Priselac said there is a 30 percent chance that temperatures in the low to mid-40s could delay the flight. The concern is that ice buildup on the external fuel tank could break off during launch and strike the shuttle.

Launch-time temperatures should reach the low 60s by Friday, Priselac said.

The chill did not affect the mood of the space station's next residents, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev and American astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms. They will replace the three men who moved into space station Alpha in early November.

``We're ready to go up to the international space station, get firsthand information from the Expedition One crew, take over and stay there for 4 1/2 or five months,'' Voss said upon arriving at Kennedy Space Center late Sunday night.

Helms already is bracing for the possibility of a longer mission.

``We'll be up there a long time, several months. We won't see you until the landing, probably this fall,'' she said.

Besides the so-called Expedition Two crew, Discovery will carry up a module filled with supplies, equipment and a few science experiments for the space station.

This reusable, cylindrical moving van, built in Italy and named Leonardo, will be attached to the space station. Once its contents are unloaded, the van will be returned to Discovery's cargo bay for the trip back to Earth.

Space shuttle Atlantis, meanwhile, returned to Kennedy Space Center on Monday, almost two weeks after landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Atlantis was diverted to California because of bad weather in Cape Canaveral, after successfully delivering the U.S. Destiny laboratory to the space station. The shuttle made the cross-country trip bolted to the top of a jumbo jet.

NASA test director Jeff Spaulding acknowledged that the shuttle launch pace has been quick, especially in the past month. But he added: ``I think it's a good pace.''

Late Sunday, Helms called out a special hello to her 7-year-old nephew, Bryant West, who traveled to the launch site from Wichita, Kan. He had to keep a safe distance from the crew to prevent the spread of germs.

``Bryant, I won't see you for about six months,'' Helms said. ``But please be there to greet me on landing.''