Space Shuttle to Launch New European Lab Today
Following rollback of the rotating service structure, or RSS, on Launch Pad 39A, Space Shuttle Atlantis stands bathed in lights atop a mobile launch platform on Dec. 5, 2007.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? Seven astronauts and NASA?s shuttle Atlantis are poised to rocket into space today to carry a European laboratory to its new orbital home at International Space Station (ISS).

Shuttle commander Stephen Frick and six crewmates plan to make an an afternoon launch from their seaside pad here at the Kennedy Space Center to haul the European Space Agency?s (ESA) Columbus lab to the ISS.

?Obviously it?s been a real long training flow for us, a long time building to this moment,? Frick told reporters earlier this week. ?We?re absolutely ready to go.?

Atlantis? STS-122 crew is counting down toward a planned 4:31 p.m. EST (2131 GMT) liftoff, with current forecasts predicting a 90 percent chance of clear skies over Atlantis? Pad 39 launch site.

Launching spaceward with Frick will be shuttle pilot Alan Poindexter; mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love and ESA astronauts Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts. Poindexter, Melvin and Love will begin their first career spaceflights when Atlantis lifts off.

?I?m trying to suppress it a little bit before the engines light up,? Melvin said in a NASA interview. ?But it?s very exciting.?

Frick and his crewmates plan to install Columbus, swap out one member of the station?s Expedition 16 crew and attach new experiments and hardware outside the ISS during the three spacewalks planned for their 11-day mission. If Atlantis? power supplies hold out, the STS-122 flight could be extended by two more days to allow an extra spacewalk to inspect a balky station solar array joint.

Europe?s orbital lab

For ESA officials, today?s planned launch is the culmination of more than 20 years of effort to build and fly the 1.4 billion Euro ($2 billion) Columbus laboratory. The 13-ton research module will be attached to the station?s hub-like Harmony node during the STS-122 mission.

?It?s very important for us to get the module on orbit and to have, then, the opportunity for our astronauts to fly,? said Alan Thirkettle, space station program manager for the ESA. ?We?re very excited, we?re very proud and we?re really looking forward to it.?

Eyharts and Schlegel will christen Columbus for the ESA during STS-122, with Eyharts staying aboard the ISS as the agency?s first long-duration astronaut to live and work inside the new laboratory. The veteran French astronaut will replace U.S. spaceflyer Dan Tani, an Expedition 16 flight engineer who will return to Earth aboard Atlantis when it lands on Dec. 17.

?This is a really great time,? Eyharts said in an interview. ?We are starting now to have the international partner modules.?

Atlantis? STS-122 mission will mark NASA?s fourth shuttle flight of the year and the second to haul a new orbital room to the ISS.

NASA must launch Atlantis by Dec. 13 in order to deliver Columbus to the ISS before the angles between the station?s power-generating solar arrays and the sun become unfavorable to support docked operations. If the shuttle cannot launch by the window?s close, NASA would likely wait until Jan. 2 to make another attempt, mission managers have said.

?We only have a week of launch window, so we?re really excited to launch on the first try,? Frick said.

NASA will broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV beginning at 11:30 a.m. EST (1630 GMT). Click here for's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

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