First Swede in Space: the countdown begins


The countdown to the most eagerly-anticipated Space Shuttle mission ever – in Sweden, at least – has begun. In the early hours of Friday morning, weather and technical factors permitting, Sweden’s first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang, will soar into space on the shuttle Discovery.

While the words “T-43 hours and counting” just before midnight on Monday indicated the beginning of the final preparation phase, the clock will still be stopped several times before lift-off. The last stop will be with nine minutes remaining, when a final decision will be taken about whether or not the mission will go ahead.

But the countdown began considerably more than 43 hours before the planned lift-off time of 9.36pm on Thursday (3.36am Friday Swedish time). The reason is that Nasa takes breaks in the countdown for changing staff, carrying out checks, refuelling and other preparations.

Three hours before departure, Christer Fuglesang and the six other crew members will arrive at the launch pad and will board Discovery. They will test communication with launch control at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and ground control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

At T-20 minutes the clock will be stopped for ten minutes, and then the final planned stop will be at T-9 minutes. At that point, Nasa’s most senior officers will decide whether or not to give the mission the go-ahead.

The International Space Station (ISS) has been in an orbit which was slightly too low for the docking with Discovery. Late on Monday evening the Russian Progress craft on ISS managed to correct the positioning, following a failed attempt last week.

Clouds hung low over Cape Canaveral on Monday morning but sun broke through later. Meteorologists say there is an 80 percent chance of good weather on Thursday, according to CBS.

But low cloud is the biggest concern and the weather is expected to worsen on Friday and Saturday.

Discovery’s crew flew to Cape Canaveral from Houston at the weekend, when quarantine began. On Monday afernoon the Discovery pilot, William Oefelein, and Christer Fuglesang took a flight tour over the Kennedy Space Center.

“We kept close and it was mostly to get out a bit, test a bit of G-force (made a few swings of 3-4; we won’t get more than 3G on the space shuttle anyway) and a few seconds of weightlessness. We few over Discovery and took a few pictures,” said the Swede via the Swedish Space Board.

Fuglesang said that for the sake of the hundreds of friends, colleagues and others who have gone all the way to Florida he hoped the mission would start on time; many of the guests are not staying long.

“For us in the crew a delay of a few days or weeks isn’t such a big deal. The atmosphere is good and we have a lot of fun together,” he said.