By Irene Klotz
Kennedy Space Center, Florida
The shuttle Discovery astronauts spent the week in Florida, getting a taste of what it will feel like when launch day arrives in less than three weeks.
Suited for launch: Patrick runs through a rehearsal
They learned about how to operate slide-wire baskets that would whisk them away from the shuttle's launch tower in case of an emergency.
They toured a concrete bunker at the launch pad that could be used for shelter and climbed inside an M-113 armoured personnel carrier in case a better option was a quick escape.
But for all seven crewmembers - and especially the five first-time fliers - the real thrill came on Thursday when, dressed in pumpkin-orange spacesuits, they scrambled into their seats aboard the shuttle for the final few hours of a practice launch countdown.
"It's much more immediate when you come here and see the vehicle stacked on the launch pad as it is now," said Discovery astronaut Nicholas Patrick, a North Yorkshire-born, University of Cambridge-educated pilot and mechanical engineer who joined Nasa's astronaut corps in 1998.
"It really looks like we're about to take off in it," he said.
Launch is targeted for 2136 EST on 7 December from the Kennedy Space Center.
Though he's waited eight years for a flight, Patrick, 42, will need steady space legs - and hands - from the start.
As the prime robot arm operator, Patrick will be making a critical inspection of Discovery's heatshield during his first full day in space.
NICHOLAS PATRICK - ASTRONAUT
Born: March 22, 1964 in North Yorkshire, UK; raised in London, and in Rye, NY
Likes: Flying, reading, fixing and building things, scuba diving and Tae Kwon Do
Schooling: Harrow School, London; bachelor and master's degrees in engineering, University of Cambridge, England; master's and doctorate in mechanical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Claim to fame: Holds three patents for telerobotics, display design and integrated aircraft alerting systems
Previous jobs: Engineer, Aircraft Engines Division of General Electric; teacher, researcher Human-Machine System Lab at MIT; flight instructor; statistician and programmer for a medical and robotics firm; human factors engineer at Boeing
Under his wing: More than 1,900 hours as a pilot in 20 different types of fixed-wing planes and helicopters, including 800-plus hours as a flight instructor
In his head: "The real key is to find the things you love and pursue those, and your interests will carry you"
Patrick must carefully and steadily navigate a sensor-laden 50-ft extension boom that has been attached to shuttle's multi-jointed 50-ft arm over Discovery's wings and nose.
Imagery and other data will be relayed to engineers at Nasa's Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, to determine if the shuttle was damaged by any debris during liftoff.
Nasa mandated the in-flight inspections after losing shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew in 2003 due to undetected heatshield damage caused by a chunk of foam insulation that fell of the shuttle's fuel tank during liftoff.
Although Nasa has successfully flown two modified fuel tanks since Columbia - the first redesign failed its test flight in July 2005 - managers remain leery about foam debris and are continuing efforts to improve the tanks.
The US space agency needs to keep the shuttle fleet operational for another four years to finish building the half-built International Space Station.
Discovery's mission, which managers say is the most complex in the assembly sequence, is to rewire the station's power system from the temporary grid its been using for the past six years to the high-output permanent system.
Without the upgrade, additional laboratories owned by Europe and Japan cannot be installed.
The work begins the two days after launch when Discovery reaches the space station.
Patrick will use the shuttle's robot arm to lift a spacer segment for the station's external structure out of the shuttle's cargo bay and pass it over to the station's robotic crane for installation.
"Once we have it clear of the payload bay, we move it over the side of the payload bay, being careful not to hit the payload bay doors, and then we move it down and forward toward the nose of the shuttle to a position where we can hand it easily to the space station's robot arm, which is waiting for it," Patrick said.
The next day, Nasa astronaut Robert Curbeam and Sweden's Christer Fuglesang are scheduled to make the first of the mission's three spacewalks. Their job is to install the truss. The remaining spacewalks are devoted to rerouting the station's power system.
The Columbus module is Europe's major space station contribution
"Whenever you reconfigure electrical power systems, you run the risk that you won't be able to get the system back to its full operational capability," Patrick said.
"Power is everything on board a spacecraft. Without it, you can't operate lighting, computers, and, most importantly, environmental control systems."
If all goes well, Nasa will make three more flights next year to finish installing solar arrays and a connecting node before flying Europe's long-delayed Columbus module to the station in October.