Space shuttle astronauts don spacesuits, practice launch countdown

Thursday, November 16th 2006, 2:07 pm
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Discovery's seven astronauts put on their bright orange spacesuits, drove to the launch pad and strapped into the space shuttle under gray skies and a steady drizzle Thursday for a practice countdown three weeks before their scheduled launch.

The clock stopped with four seconds left. A short time later, the astronauts practiced an escape from the spacecraft by crawling through the shuttle hatch. In pairs, placing their hands on the shoulders of the astronaut in front of them, they scurried across the launch tower to basket lifts that could whisk them to the ground in an emergency.

The practice countdown went smoothly, said NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham.

``We got the astronauts in the vehicle, let them get hands-on with a real-life space shuttle vehicle,'' Buckingham said.

The practice capped four days of drills at the Kennedy Space Center. The crew, which has five spaceflight rookies, was to return to Houston Thursday afternoon.

``It's really great to be here and see our vehicle,'' mission specialist Joan Higginbotham said earlier this week. ``It gives us joy to know that in just a few short weeks that we'll be doing a countdown for real.''

The launch is scheduled for the evening of Dec. 7. It will be the third shuttle launch of the year, the fourth since the Columbia disaster in 2003 and the first night launch in four years.

Discovery's astronauts plan to rewire the international space station during their 12-day mission. The space shuttle also will deliver an $11 million addition and rotate out a crew member for a six-month stay at the space lab.