December 5, 2007

Prospects Good for Thursday Launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- To the pleasure of NASA's international space station partners, prospects were good for an on-time liftoff of shuttle Atlantis and Europe's long-awaited Columbus lab on Thursday.

Columbus will be the second scientific laboratory added to the space station. NASA's Destiny lab made its debut in 2001, and Japan's huge lab Kibo, which means hope, will go up in three sections beginning on the very next shuttle mission in February.

The shuttle's commander, Stephen Frick, and his crew are keenly aware of how passionate the Europeans are about Columbus and how long they have waited. About 750 Europeans connnected to the lab have begun gathering at the launch site, prompting one British official, Alan Thirkettle, to quip, "We've invaded."

"We joke about how astronauts come here and it takes an awful long time from when you arrive in Houston and start training before you get your first spaceflight," Frick said in a recent interview.

Three of his crew have waited almost 10 years for a shot at space. Frick noted that some of the scientists and engineers who have worked on Columbus have waited even longer - nearly a quarter-century - for the lab to fly.

Columbus is "our cornerstone, our baby, our module, our laboratory," Thirkettle, the European Space Agency's station program manager, said Wednesday.

The 17-nation European Space Agency has spent more than $7 billion so far on the space station program, including $2 billion for Columbus, Thirkettle said. That investment will reach $13 billion by the end of 2015.

For the first year or so, most of Columbus' experiments will be operated largely from the ground, Thirkettle said. There simply isn't the manpower in orbit; the three space station astronauts spend almost all their time on construction and maintenance work. Once the crew size doubles to six in 2009, Columbus will be able to run full blast, Thirkettle said.

"We don't have to wait so long," he said, laughingly referring to the more than 22 years that have passed since development of Columbus began.

The European Space Agency hopes to get at least 10 years' use out of Columbus, but that's still uncertain. NASA plans to pull out of the space station in 2015 and focus on the moon, which would leave the Europeans relying on their own and other countries' cargo ships.

NASA's lunar exploration office hopes to capitalize on the space station between now and 2015, testing equipment and learning lessons to benefit future moon travelers. The European agency wants to join that effort and sees the space station as a key stepping stone.

To gear up for all this, NASA is under presidential orders to retire its three remaining shuttles by 2010 and wrap up space station construction by then as well.

Counting Atlantis' upcoming flight, that leaves 12 shuttle missions to the space station and one, next summer, to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The flight crunch means some space station equipment and experiments will fall by the wayside. Perhaps the biggest casualty will be the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a massive global project meant to study the creation of the universe.


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