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Monday, March 10, 2008

Astronauts set for Endeavour’s Ride

Every afternoon for the past two weeks, a crew of starstruck children rocketed into the public library in Pelham, N.H., on a single-minded mission - checking on the status of space shuttle astronaut and hometown hero Richard Linnehan.

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null"Every day the kids come by and ask, 'Is he on the moon yet?' " said Alice McEdward, a close family friend of Linnehan, who is slated to enter space for the fourth and final time early tomorrow, when shuttle Endeavour launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla. "They are so excited and proud. We all are."

The New Hampshire youngsters started their countdown when the children's library gathered them for a good-luck photograph, which McEdward sent Linnehan as part of a small keychain as a keepsake for his 16-day mission at the international space station.

When the students, many of them moony-eyed astronauts-in-waiting, found out Linnehan had graduated from Pelham High School after growing up in nearby Hudson, N.H., and Lowell, Mass., he instantly became the center of their universe. They wrote him dozens of well-wisher cards and drew pictures that McEdward made into a scrapbook.

"Way too big for his trip," she chuckled.

Linnehan, a mission specialist and the lead spacewalker on Endeavor, is a former veterinarian who was selected for NASA astronaut training in 1992. He first entered orbit in 1996 on space shuttle Columbia, which orbited the Earth 271 times and covered 7 million miles. In March 2002, he took part in the fourth mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, helping to successfully upgrade its systems.

Overall, Linnehan has logged 43 days in space and more than 21 hours on spacewalks.

Linnehan was unavailable for comment so close to the launch, which is scheduled for 2:28 a.m. tomorrow at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, to coincide with the space station's orbit. But in a preflight interview with NASA, Linnehan, 50, who now lives in Houston, said he continues to marvel at space travel and his good fortune to have become an astronaut.

"Like I said, stick a pin in me," he told NASA. "I can't believe, I just can't believe I, I'm still here actually. I'm getting old now but I've got one last flight. My perspective now is that it's really important we finish the station and get everybody involved because if we're going to continue this whole thing about human exploration of space, it's got to be, it's got to be global."

Linnehan, who is single, was raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced. In the recent NASA interview, he said he had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

"I remember watching when I was 12, when they landed on the moon, watching all that and I'm like, 'My God, they're walking on the moon!' " he said. In veterinary school, he added, he used to skip classes to watch the shuttle landings.
He recalled his joy at being accepted into the astronaut training program. He received the offer while standing on a pier in San Diego.

more stories like this"I said 'Yeah,' and I took off, ran off the pier, and jumped in the harbor," he said. "So that was a red letter day for me."

Speaking at the 2002 commencement ceremonies at the University of New Hampshire, his alma mater, Linnehan described the beauty of outer space.

"As you float out of your seat, you look down on Earth through an incredibly thin skin of blue atmosphere. Cyclonic storms circulate in sapphire oceans as continents pass below you. You are able to see the curvature of Earth as the sun sets behind an atmospheric prism of color and light," he said. "As you gaze out into deep space, what had once seemed so immense now seems infinitesimal, fragile, and unique. Welcome to space!"

The seven-astronaut crew, four of whom are entering space for the first time, plans to assemble and install a Canadian-made robot named Dextre, a 3,400-pound device with 11-foot arms that can be remotely operated from inside the space station to perform tasks that previously required a risky spacewalk. The crew will also attach part of a Japanese-made laboratory to the orbital station.

Linnehan will carry a photograph of an 8-year-old Bedford, N.H., boy who died in a backyard accident a decade ago, according to published reports. The boy, Alex, had dreamed of becoming an astronaut, and his father, Paul Higgins, asked Linnehan to take Alex's picture into space.

Linnehan is a source of great local pride, McEdward said. His flight suit hangs on the wall of the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, N.H., and Pelham residents recall him fondly.

Rita Mercier, a Lowell city councilor, is heading to Florida today to represent the city for tomorrow's launch. A citation and key to the city had previously been sent in the hopes they might find their way onto the shuttle, she said.

Mercier said she is thrilled at the opportunity to witness the start of the final voyage of an astronaut she described as a "wonderful, regular guy."

"I'm so excited, I probably won't be able to sleep," she said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am honored."

McEdward, 76, said Linnehan was good friends with her youngest son, Jamie, and her oldest son, Larry, who has since died. Linnehan carried Larry McEdward's picture on his 2002 space shuttle flight, a gesture that meant a great deal to her, she said.

McEdward said Linnehan invited her to tomorrow's launch, but she decided to stay home because her arthritis would not appreciate the trip. She has been to two previous launches, however, and said they are wonderful to behold.

"It's spectacular," she said. "It's quite a feeling to watch when you know someone who's on it. It's goosepimply, but worth it."
The Kennedy Space Centre in Florida is all set for Tuesday, when Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to launch. The Shuttle will carry a Japanese lab section and Canadian-built robot for the International Space Station.

After the prediction of favorable weather the chances of the launch are said to be 90 per cent at 2:28 a.m. EDT/0628 GMT.

The seven-man Endeavour crew will include two veteran NASA astronauts: Commander Dominic Gorie and lead spacewalker Richard Linnehan; rookies Greg Johnson, Michael Foreman, Robert Behnken and Garrett Reisman; and Japan's Takao Doi, who flew on a shuttle research mission in 1997.

Reisman will stay at the Space Station in place of France's Leopold Eyharts, who will come back.

One of the main jobs for the astronauts would be to put together Dextre, the robot. He's enormous and to see him with his giant arms, it is a little scary. It's a little monstrous, it is," said Reisman, of Dextre.

Also, they are supposed to deliver Japan's massive Kibo space station lab, a float-in closet for storing tools, experiments and spare parts.

"We've got a very, very ambitious flight schedule, but with a great orbiter waiting for us and this great crew, we're going to have a great mission," said Commander Gorie.

Dextre will be taken in pieces, and a team of spacewalking astronauts will then assemble the 3,400-pound robot and attach it to the outside of the space station.

"I feel kind of like dad on Christmas Eve, you know, opening up this present and trying to put it together for the son or daughter and going, 'Whoa, what have I gotten myself into here with this 'some assembly required' part of the space station," Foreman said.

Reisman, who will be moving into the space station, can't wait to see Dextre rise from its shuttle transport pallet, rotating up "almost like it's Frankenstein's monster coming alive."

Endeavour is the second of six shuttle flights NASA has planned for this year. Overall, it is the space agency’s 122nd shuttle mission.

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