CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The countdown toward the first space shuttle flight in almost a year is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Discovery’s seven astronauts arrived at the Kennedy Space Center from Houston on Tuesday to begin final preparations for their planned launch at 3:48 p.m. Saturday. The crew spoke briefly to well-wishers and reporters under cloudy skies at the shuttle runway shortly after touching down.

“We’ve been training for a long time. We’re as prepared as we’re going to be,” said Air Force Col. Steve Lindsey, the mission’s commander. “Everything is looking go. So weather permitting, which I’m pretty confident in, we’re going to be airborne on July 1.”

Whether Florida’s summer weather will cooperate Saturday remains a big question.

The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing will issue its first official launch weather forecast this morning. However, the extended forecast from the National Weather Service calls for typical conditions for a summer afternoon: Cloudy skies, temperatures in the mid-80s and a 30-percent chance of scattered clouds and thunderstorms.

That could mean lots of uncertainty right up until launch time.

Once in orbit, Discovery’s 12-day mission to the international space station will be part test flight, part cargo delivery and part crew rotation. It will include two spacewalks to do maintenance on the station and check out new hardware.

The mission will carry more than two tons of equipment and supplies to the station, much of it inside an Italian-built cargo carrier dubbed Leonardo that will travel to space in Discovery’s payload bay. German astronaut Thomas Reiter, who spent six months in orbit aboard the Russian Mir outpost in the mid-1990s, will stay behind as a third resident aboard the station when Discovery departs.

“After years and years of training, I think this is a remarkable moment,” said Reiter, who will become the first astronaut from the European Space Agency to live aboard the station long-term. “I think we all are confident that our launch will signify the continuation of the assembly of the station, returning to a three-man crew and utilizing the station.”

The station’s two current residents, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, said during a news conference from orbit Tuesday that they were looking forward to Reiter’s arrival.

“Thomas will bring a whole new dimension to the crew . . . we know him well,” Williams said. “Obviously, we will have a lot more crew time to dedicate to science and research, which is a great addition.”

(c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SHUTTLE DISCOVERY

AP-NY-06-27-06 1722EDT

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