Europeans Eager to Launch Orbital Science Lab
The Columbus laboratory is ESA's biggest contribution to the International Space Station (ISS).
Credit: D. Ducros, ESA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? Europe's bus-sized science lab will soon make its zero-gravity debut after the launch of NASA's space shuttle Atlantis tomorrow, weather permitting.

Atlantis will ferry the 10.3-ton module to the International Space Station (ISS), where astronauts will attach it and make way for space-based science experiments throughout the next seven years. NASA intended Columbus to reach orbit in early December, but the agency postponed its launch to address problems with fuel gauge-like sensors in Atlantis' external fuel tank.

"We're really looking forward to getting Columbus on orbit to become an on-orbit member of the space station club," said Alan Thirkettle, ISS program manager for the European Space Agency (ESA). He noted that getting two ESA astronauts ? Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts ? into space with the module will also be a moment of triumph.

"They're a real focal point not just of excitement but for inspiration as well," Thirkettle said, noting that children across Europe are closely following the STS-122 mission.

If inclement weather prompts mission managers to postpone Atlantis' space shot at 2:45 p.m. EST (1945 GMT) tomorrow, Columbus will hitch a ride into orbit Friday or Saturday afternoon.

Zero-gravity lab

Columbus, which looks somewhat like an over-sized aluminum can, boasts about 2,648 cubic feet (75 cubic meters) of space within its polished shell. Thirkettle explained that this volume accommodates 16 phone-booth racks as well as four platforms outside.

"We get a lot of bang for our buck with the launch," Thirkettle said. The ESA spent about 880 million Euros ($1.3 billion) to build the lab.

Thirkettle couldn't say how many scientists hope to perform experiments vicariously through on-station astronauts, but did say there will be "a lot."

"We will, in fact, be getting science back from the Columbus laboratory data back within a week or 10 days of it's launching," he said. "That's something we're very excited and very pleased about."

Some assembly required

Commanded by Stephen Frick, the seven-astronaut crew of the STS-122 mission will help piece Columbus together next week.

Mission specialist Rex Walheim will lead the assembly tasks during three planned spacewalks, two of which are dedicated to Columbus assembly.

ESA astronaut Hans Schlegel will assist Walheim on the first spacewalk to snugly attach the lab to the Harmony module, also known as Node 2. Mission specialist Stan Love will help Walheim outfit Columbus' two external experiments and other devices on the third spacewalk.

Pilot Alan Poindexter and mission specialist Leland Melvin will join Frick and the other astronauts during their 11-day mission.

Thirkettle said he can't wait for the orbital work to commence.

"It'll be nice to be part of the European Space Agency," Thirkettle said. "We've been part of a 'European Ground Agency' for a long time, as far as [the] space station is concerned."

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

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