CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Japan is about to roll out the Lexus of space station labs, a whopper in size and sophistication.
The $1 billion Kibo lab - which means "hope" in Japanese - is poised for a Saturday launch aboard space shuttle Discovery. It will be the biggest and, by far, the most elaborate room at the international space station - a 37-foot-long scientific workshop as large as a school bus, with its own hatch to the outside for experiments and a pair of robot arms. Making it even bigger will be a closet and porch.
Kibo is so enormous that three shuttle flights are needed to get it all up.
Seven astronauts, one of them Japanese, will deliver the actual lab on the upcoming mission, along with the larger of the two robot arms. A separate storage room loaded with Kibo equipment went up in March. The porch for outdoor science experiments and the smaller robot arm will fly next year.
Kibo (pronounced KEE'-boh) dwarfs the two labs already in orbit - NASA's modest-size Destiny and the even smaller European Space Agency's Columbus.
"It's usually the other way around, isn't it? Japanese products should be smaller, but this time it's the other way around," Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide said with a chuckle.
Two decades in the making, the 16-ton Kibo is 9 feet longer than the U.S. Destiny lab, which was launched in 2001, and more than 14 feet longer than Europe's Columbus, which flew to the space station in February.
Shuttle commander Mark Kelly calls it "the Lexus of the space station modules."
"It's big and it's capable. I mean, it's got its own dedicated robotic arm. It's got its own air lock. Eventually, it's going to have an external platform for experiments. It's got a lot of capable science racks that are going in. So yeah, I think it's pretty impressive."
Kelly and his crew will install Kibo during the 14-day shuttle flight, then attach the Japanese storage compartment that was left in a temporary parking position in March.
Three spacewalks are planned to hook up Kibo and handle other space station work.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief, said it seems like simple tasks.
"But when you get into the details of what's actually involved ... it's an extremely complicated mission," he said.
One of the Discovery astronauts, Gregory Chamitoff, will swap places with the space station's current U.S. resident, Garrett Reisman, who will return to Earth on the shuttle following a three-month stay. *