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Discovery's countdown finally begins

COUNTDOWN clocks began ticking down on Sunday for NASA's first space shuttle launch of the year, a mission meant to complete the International Space Station's power system and exterior beams.

Shuttle Discovery is scheduled for liftoff at 9:20pm local time on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the United States.

On board will be the first two former teachers to rocket into space together.

Science teachers Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold II will attempt multiple space walks ?? the most dangerous job in orbit.

Discovery's flight was delayed a month because of concerns about hydrogen gas valves in the engine compartment. After extra tests NASA deemed the spacecraft safe to fly.

Discovery's astronauts arrived at the launch site on Sunday afternoon and the countdown clocks began ticking four hours later.

The crew will deliver and install a final set of solar wings for the space station. With just over a year remaining until the orbiting complex is completed, the framework holding the solar wings is the last major American-made building block left to fly.

The flight comes a year and a half after the last teacher-astronaut, Barbara Morgan, went into space after a two-decade wait. Morgan was the backup in the mid-1980s for schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was killed when space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff.

Acaba was a freshman at the University of California at Santa Barbara when McAuliffe died on January 28, 1986. Arnold was fresh out of college and living in Washington, and his wife-to-be was a student-teacher.

"It definitely had an impact when you look at the sacrifices that she (McAuliffe) made and the importance that NASA put on it," Acaba said.

Besides setting up the new solar wings, the astronauts will deliver a spare urine processor for the space station's water-recycling system, do some maintenance and drop off Japan's first crew member for the manned station, astronaut Koichi Wakata.


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