European Hopes Ride on New Space Lab, Cargo Ship
Although Columbus will be the smallest laboratory on board the International Space Station, it offers the same workspace volume as other science modules on orbit.
Credit: D. Ducros, ESA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The future of Europe?s human spaceflight program is riding on the successful Thursday launch of NASA?s shuttle Atlantis carrying the continent?s Columbus research laboratory, European space officials said Wednesday.

Built for the European Space Agency (ESA), Columbus is the agency?s major contribution to the ISS and the lynchpin for Europe?s human spaceflight endeavors.

Columbus ?is our cornerstone, our baby, our module, our laboratory,? said Alan Thirkettle, the ESA?s space station program manager, in a briefing here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). ?What goes up tomorrow is an operating laboratory. It doesn?t have to be outfitted. It?s all ready to start work.?

Weighing more than 13 tons, Columbus is set to launch with Atlantis? STS-122 crew at 4:31 p.m. EST (2131 GMT) after more than 20 years of development. The lab is named after the Atlantic Ocean-crossing European explorer Christopher Columbus and has weathered delays first within the ESA, then by Russia as ISS construction began and NASA as the U.S. agency recovered from the 2003 Columbia tragedy.

More than 750 ESA officials and supporters have traveled to KSC to bid adieu to the 23-foot (7-meter) long module, Thirkettle said.

?Tomorrow is a chance for Europeans, really, to share with pride in the joy and the triumph that we have developed,? he added.

The lab is launching with five of 10 available science racks filled - NASA will use the rest by agreement - but it isn?t the end of the ESA?s space station contribution, ESA officials said. Early next year, the agency plans to launch Jules Verne, the first of five Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV) that will haul food, water and other vital supplies to the ISS.

?It?s like a big cylinder, but it has wings like a dragonfly,? ESA astronaut Jean-Francis Clervoy, the agency?s ATV senior advisor, said of the solar panel-powered, unmanned cargo ship.

Built to launch atop European-built Ariane 5 rockets, ATV resupply ships are expected to ferry up to 5.5 tons of cargo to the ISS, as well fresh water, air and propellant supplies once Jules Verne?s planned 15-day shakedown cruise is complete next February.

To date, the ESA has spent some 5 billion Euros ($7 billion) on its ISS program contributions and expects to spend a total of 9 billion Euros (($13 billion) by 2015. That cost is spread across 10 of the 17 ESA member nations, Thirkettle said.

?Today, we?re doing wonderful things together,? said Thirkettle, adding that 60 years ago the continent was much more disparate. ?Seventeen member states of Europe working together to produce spacecraft is something that?s extremely important.?

Together, Columbus and its ATV cargo ships make up the ESA?s largest commitments to the ISS.

In return for building other ISS modules and hardware, Europe will be able to launch its own astronauts on six-month expeditions to the station every few years. Veteran French spaceflyer Leopold Eyharts, who will launch alongside German crewmate Hans Schlegel aboard Atlantis on Thursday, is the agency?s second such long-duration astronaut and will join the station?s Expedition 16 crew when the STS-122 crew departs.

?That?s very important for Europe,? said Thirkettle, adding that European long-duration astronauts are critical to boost interest in science and space among the continent?s youth. ?We have to stay a high-tech continent.?

Thirkettle said ESA officials hope to use its experience with the ISS to continue is human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit, with meetings set for next year to determine the agency?s future steps.

?Europe is, historically, the exploring continent,? he added. ?I don?t think we?re going to give up now.?

NASA will broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

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