Introducing Kibo, The Lexus of Space Labs

Japan has built a space station lab that is being called the Lexus of space stations for its size and sophistication.

The station will launch Saturday with the space shuttle Discovery. It is called Kibo (which means “hope” in Japanese) and costs a whopping $1 billion. Kibo will be the biggest and, by far, the most elaborate room at the international space station – a 37-foot-long scientific workshop as large as a school bus, with its own hatch to the outside for experiments and a pair of robot arms. It also contains a closet and porch.

The station is so big that three shuttle flights were needed to get the whole thing up.

Kibo (pronounced KEE’-boh) is much larger than the two labs already in orbit””NASA’s modest-size Destiny and the even smaller European Space Agency’s Columbus.

“It’s usually the other way around, isn’t it? Japanese products should be smaller, but this time it’s the other way around,” said Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

The 16-ton Kibo is 9 feet longer than the U.S. Destiny lab, which was launched in 2001, and more than 14 feet longer than Europe’s Columbus, which flew to the space station in February. It took twenty years to complete the station.

Shuttle commander Mark Kelly calls it “the Lexus of the space station modules.”

It’s big and it’s capable, said Kelly. “I mean, it’s got its own dedicated robotic arm. It’s got its own air lock. Eventually, it’s going to have an external platform for experiments. It’s got a lot of capable science racks that are going in. So yeah, I think it’s pretty impressive.”

Kelly and his crew will install Kibo during the 14-day shuttle flight. In March, they will attach the Japanese storage compartment that was left in a temporary parking position.

The crew will undergo three spacewalks to hook up Kibo and handle other space station work, like replacing an empty nitrogen gas tank and seeing how best to clean a jammed solar-wing rotary joint.

NASA’s space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier, said it won’t be as simple as it sounds.

“When you get into the details of what’s actually involved … it’s an extremely complicated mission,” he said.

While up there, one of the Discovery astronauts, Gregory Chamitoff, will swap places with the space station’s current U.S. resident, Garrett Reisman, who will return to Earth on the shuttle following a three-month stay. Chamitoff will spend six months up there.

NASA decided last week to proceed with its shuttle mission as planned, even as the Russians continue to investigate April’s rocky landing by a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three astronauts home from the space station. A Soyuz constantly is docked at the orbiting outpost for use as a lifeboat in an evacuation.

Discovery’s flight will set a variety of milestones for NASA.

This will be the 10th shuttle mission since the Columbia tragedy in 2003, leaving just 10 more shuttle flights before the fleet is retired in 2010″”marking the end of space station construction.

The fuel tank on Discovery is the first to incorporate all the post-Columbia changes from the start of construction instead of later in the construction phase. While shuttle managers expect this fuel tank to be the best one yet. It will have minimal insulating-foam loss. Still, a full inspection of the spaceship’s thermal skin still will be required.

That inspection will be done later in the flight than usual because Kelly and his crew won’t get their inspection boom until they arrive at the space station. The previous shuttle visitors left the 50-foot laser-tipped pole in March; it couldn’t fit in Discovery’s payload bay given the size of Kibo.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg, the lone woman on the crew, will become the 50th woman to fly in space””setting another important milestone for the upcoming Discovery mission.

Nyberg will be rocketing into orbit just a few weeks before the 45th anniversary of the first woman in space, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, and the 25th anniversary of the first American woman in space, Sally Ride.

“What I’m really looking forward to is the time when we’re not counting anymore,” Nyberg said.

Image Caption: Pressurized Module of the International Space Station element — Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) “Kibo” is seen at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagoya, Japan. That country’s National Space Development Agency (NASDA) will start the total systems test of JEM on Oct. 20, 2001. Photo courtesy of NASDA.

On the Net:

NASA SpaceFlight

Japanese Space Agency

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