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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 November 2006, 13:10 GMT
Swede prepares for critical mission
By Irene Klotz
Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Christer Fuglesang (Nasa)
Christer Fuglesang will do two spacewalks on the mission
With the arrival this week of space shuttle Discovery at its launch pad, Nasa has begun the final round of preparations for a critical space station assembly mission that promises to test the mettle of the seven-member crew.

The launch is set for 7 December.

In the thick of a complicated series of tasks to rewire the station - hopefully without serious interruption to the resident crew aboard - will be Sweden's first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang.

He is a 49-year-old particle physicist who joined the European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut corps 14 years ago.

"I can put this exact date [in my mind] when I decided to at least try to become an astronaut," Fuglesang said. "Esa were announcing that they were looking for astronauts.

"It was kind of like a classified ad in the newspaper. A friend of mine found it and he told me, 'Hey, I've found a new job for you'.

"And I thought he was joking - I didn't really have a clear picture of becoming an astronaut, but I wanted to go to space if I could. So I made a pretty quick decision, 'Ja, of course I'm going to apply'."

Old friends

Fuglesang expected to train with Nasa, but found himself on a pioneering assignment to Russia instead. It was 1993 and Europe was preparing for a dedicated research mission aboard the now-defunct Russian space station Mir.

"The toughest part was to learn the Russian language," Fuglesang said. "At that time, we didn't have any interpreters. There was no material in English. We really had to do everything in Russian."

Shuttle on he pad (Getty)
Discovery's launch may be in the dark - the first since Columbia
German-born astronaut Thomas Reiter, who currently is serving as a crewmember on the International Space Station (ISS), ended up being assigned to the Euromir flight. Fuglesang stayed in Russia during the mission, coaching Reiter through his experiments.

This time, Reiter and Fuglesang will be on common ground. Discovery is scheduled to spend about a week at the station, then ferry Reiter home after his five-month stay in space.

"We never thought that we ever would fly together in space," Fuglesang said. "I guess it will be like suddenly meeting an old friend on some foreign island somewhere. It will be really great to see Thomas up there. I'm looking forward to that very much. "

Reiter is being replaced by Nasa astronaut Sunita Williams, who will join the Discovery crew for the ride to the station.

Though this will be Fuglesang's debut space flight, he will have his hands full. Fuglesang is paired with veteran Nasa astronaut Robert Curbeam for the first two spacewalks of the mission.

Module delay

During the first outing, the pair will install a new external truss segment onto the station's structural backbone. Two days later, another spacewalk is planned to begin critical work to hook up the station's permanent electrical and cooling systems.

Since arriving in orbit six years ago, the US side of the outpost has been on a temporary power system that was to have been retired in 2003. But after the Columbia disaster, Nasa stopped construction of the station for more than three-and-a-half years to redesign the shuttle's faulty fuel tank and make other safety upgrades.

Artist's impression of the International Space Station (Esa)
Columbus is Esa's major contribution to the space station
The tank's first redesign fell short during an initial test flight last year, but then the US space agency demonstrated a successful tank design during two flights earlier this year.

The work scheduled for the Discovery crew must be finished before any more station assembly missions can be flown.

Nasa is under a strict deadline to complete construction before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. There are no other spaceships designed to carry and install the station components.

By next year, the station is expected to be fully powered and outfitted with a connecting node so Europe's long-delayed Columbus laboratory module and Japan's Kibo complex can be attached to the station.

Fuglesang said he hoped his flight would inspire Swedes to become more involved in the space programme and encourage young people to study engineering and science.

"I hope they will see the joy with space, the adventure, the future of space," he said. "If I can help do that, I'm very happy."

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