CAPE CANAVERAL - A former NASA orbiter and payload engineer who worked at Kennedy Space Center for nine years is destined to launch on a supply run to the International Space Station next year.
The mission will be the second space flight for Joan Higginbotham, a former Titusville resident who worked at KSC between 1987 and 1996.
Higginbotham will serve as a mission specialist and prime robot arm operator on flight. The mission is considered key to preparing the station for larger crews -- six people rather than three -- an expansion planned in 2009.
Set for launch aboard shuttle Endeavour next September, the mission will involve hauling more than 14 tons of supplies up to the outpost, including a new galley and extra sleep stations required for larger crews.
Higginbotham will be responsible for hoisting an Italian cargo carrier from the shuttle's payload bay and then berthing it to a docking port on the U.S. Unity module.
Higginbotham also will serve as the mission's loadmaster, supervising the delivery of all the supplies and equipment -- a record amount for a mission to the station.
She'll also be in charge of loading surplus equipment and trash into the cylindrical module and then stowing it back in the shuttle's payload bay for the return trip to Earth.
Veteran pilot Chris Ferguson will command the mission and first-time shuttle flyer Eric Boe will be the pilot. Mission specialists will include rookies Stephen Bowen and Robert Kimbrough as well as veteran spacewalker Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper.
Higginbotham first flew aboard Discovery last December on a mission to deliver a new section for the port side of the station's central truss, a metallic backbone that eventually will equal the length of an American football field.
Weighing in at about
4,100 pounds, the short spanner serves as a bridge between two outer segments of the truss, providing clearance for two massive American solar wings to rotate like Ferris wheels.
Doing so enables them to constantly tracking the sun to maximize solar energy collection and electrical power output.
Higginbotham and her crewmates nicknamed the girder "Puny" because it was the smallest station segment launched up until that time.
The second astronaut selected from the KSC work force, Higginbotham said the nine-minute ascent from launch pad 39B was incredible.
"It was a tremendous ride," Higginbotham said in an interview earlier this year. "I thought it was incredibly smooth. A lot of people had told me that it's just a beast, but Discovery was incredibly smooth."
Higginbotham sat on the middeck of the shuttle orbiter for launch. She was on the flight deck during re-entry and recalled the view out cockpit windows as the spaceship plunged through hot ionized gases in the upper atmosphere.
"There were flashes of red and yellow and the colors were very vibrant. It was like a big laser show -- pretty incredible," she said.
The astronauts felt the first discernable tug of normal gravity as the orbiter passed an altitude of about 400,000 feet. "And once we hit the atmosphere, you could definitely feel gravity acting upon every single inch of your body," Higginbotham said.
Fellow astronaut Kay Hire is the only other fellow KSC worker to fly in space. She launched aboard Columbia in 1998.
Higginbotham said she considers herself "a very lucky girl."
"Not only did I get to work on the vehicle for nine years . . . I got to fly on it. So how much more full circle can you come than that?"
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