CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA on Friday cleared space shuttle Endeavour for liftoff in less than two weeks on the longest space station visit ever.
Endeavour is scheduled to blast off March 11 on a 16-day mission that could end up stretching by another day.
NASA's new shuttle program manager, John Shannon, said it will be a long and complicated flight packed with five spacewalks and major space station pieces from two countries: Japan and Canada.
He said he's amazed by the fact that just nine days ago, on Feb. 20, Atlantis returned from the international space station and, already, another shuttle is poised to fly again.
NASA's space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, stressed that no one is rushing. The fact remains, however, that the space agency faces a 2010 deadline for completing the 12 remaining shuttle flights, 11 of them space station delivery and construction trips.
Endeavour and its seven-man crew will face only a slightly increased risk from orbital debris generated by the military's destruction last week of a failed spy satellite, Gerstenmaier said. Instead of the usual 1-in-269 chance of a micrometeorite or piece of space junk critically penetrating the shuttle during its flight, the odds are now 1-in-259, he said.
"We don't see any concern or any problems," he said.
Endeavour will carry up the first part of Japan's massive Kibo lab and a Canadian two-armed robot that eventually will take over some of the astronauts' spacewalking chores.
There is a space station launch on the books before Endeavour's. On March 8, the European Space Agency expects to launch its new unmanned space station cargo ship, the Jules Verne, from French Guiana. The craft will remain more than 1,200 miles from the space station, until it closes in for a docking sometime after Endeavour leaves.
Endeavour's launch, meanwhile, will fall in the wee hours: 2:28 a.m. EDT.