CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. ? Seven astronauts and NASA?s shuttle Atlantis are poised torocket into space today to carry a European laboratory to its new orbital homeat International Space Station (ISS).
Shuttlecommander Stephen Frick and six crewmates plan to make an an afternoon launchfrom their seaside pad here at the Kennedy Space Center to haul the EuropeanSpace Agency?s (ESA) Columbus lab to the ISS.
?Obviouslyit?s been a real long training flow for us, a long time building to thismoment,? 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 overAtlantis? Pad 39 launch site.
Launchingspaceward with Frick will be shuttle pilot Alan Poindexter; mission specialistsLeland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love and ESA astronauts Hans Schlegel andLeopold Eyharts. Poindexter, Melvin and Love will begin their first career spaceflightswhen Atlantis lifts off.
?I?m tryingto suppress it a little bit before the engines light up,? Melvin said in a NASAinterview. ?But it?s very exciting.?
Frick andhis crewmates planto install Columbus, swap out one member of the station?s Expedition 16crew and attach new experiments and hardware outside the ISS during the threespacewalks planned for their 11-day mission. If Atlantis? power supplies holdout, the STS-122 flight could be extended by two more days to allow an extraspacewalk to inspect a balky station solar array joint.
Europe?s orbital lab
For ESAofficials, today?s planned launch is the culmination of more than 20 years ofeffort to build and fly the 1.4 billion Euro ($2 billion) Columbuslaboratory. The 13-ton research module will be attached to the station?s hub-likeHarmony node during the STS-122 mission.
?It?s veryimportant for us to get the module on orbit and to have, then, the opportunityfor our astronauts to fly,? said Alan Thirkettle, space station program managerfor the ESA. ?We?re very excited, we?re very proud and we?re really lookingforward to it.?
Eyharts andSchlegel will christen Columbus for the ESA during STS-122, with Eyhartsstaying aboard the ISS as the agency?s first long-duration astronaut to liveand work inside the new laboratory. The veteranFrench astronaut will replace U.S. spaceflyer Dan Tani, an Expedition 16flight engineer who will return to Earth aboard Atlantis when it lands on Dec.17.
?This is areally great time,? Eyharts said in an interview. ?We are starting now to havethe international partner modules.?
Atlantis?STS-122 mission will mark NASA?s fourth shuttle flight of the year and thesecond to haul a new orbital room to the ISS.
NASA mustlaunch Atlantis by Dec. 13 in order to deliver Columbus to the ISS before theangles between the station?s power-generating solar arrays and the sun becomeunfavorable to support docked operations. If the shuttle cannot launch by thewindow?s close, NASA would likely wait until Jan. 2 to make another attempt,mission managers have said.
?We onlyhave a week of launch window, so we?re really excited to launch on the firsttry,? Frick said.
NASAwill broadcast Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV beginning at 11:30a.m. EST (1630 GMT). Click herefor SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.
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