HOUSTON (Reuters) - Space shuttle Endeavour astronauts were set to spend Tuesday on the routine tasks of getting their ship ready for a Wednesday landing as they neared the end of what NASA hailed as a landmark mission.
After delivering the first Japanese module to the International Space Station and assembling a Canadian robot for station maintenance, the seven crew members were to stow gear and check flight control systems to prepare for their fiery descent back to Earth.
Endeavour, which launched on March 11 and spent 12 days at the space station before departing on Monday, was scheduled to land at 7:05 p.m. EDT on Wednesday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The shuttle crew performed five spacewalks, with much of their time devoted to the assembly of Dextre, the Canadian robot that will be used to perform maintenance on the station exterior.
But their primary task was to install the first piece of Japan’s three-piece Kibo complex, which will be the largest laboratory on the space outpost when completed early next year.
The main segment of Kibo, which is Japanese for “hope,” will be ferried to the station in a May shuttle flight.
Kibo’s arrival marked the first time that all 15 partner nations in the $100 billion project have been represented on the space station, the first segment of which was launched into orbit in November 1998.
“Here we are nine years, three months-plus later and we now have all the international partners represented on board the ISS (space station),” NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said in a Monday night press briefing at Johnson Space Center.
“So this is a fabulous moment for us here in the program,” Suffredini said. “It is without a doubt the largest, most technologically challenging international project ever undertaken by humankind, and we as a people ought to be proud of where we are.”
He said the space station is now about 70 percent complete. NASA plans to fly 10 more shuttle flights to construct and supply the outpost before the aging shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.
Before the station can be finished, NASA must come up with a fix for a balky rotary joint that points one of the outpost’s solar power panels at the sun to maximize electricity production.
NASA has sent several spacewalkers -- including Mike Foreman on this flight -- out to examine the joint and has concluded that something is grinding as the joint moves, Suffredini said.
“The data does suggest ... it was caused by a high-friction event,” he said.
Still unknown, he said, was why it was happening. It “is going to take a while for us to figure (it) out.”
NASA has locked the joint in place to prevent further damage, but will need maximum power from the panel as station assembly continues.
Suffredini said there is sufficient electricity to fully power the station until the third piece of Kibo is delivered in 2009.
“That’s probably the next bump we have in the road,” he said.
Editing by Vicki Allen