Shuttle carrying Euro science lab prepares to go
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Launch pad technicians began fueling the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis on Thursday for the start of an 11-day mission to deliver a European laboratory to the International Space Station.
With no technical issues pending and good weather forecast, NASA managers cleared the shuttle for a launch attempt at 4:31 p.m. EST from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Tucked inside Atlantis' cargo bay was the European Space Agency's primary contribution to the $100 billion space station program -- a 27-foot-(8.2-metre) long, 15-foot-(4.6-metre) diameter module named Columbus.
ESA has waited patiently for this day for more than five years. Columbus' initial planned launch was postponed when NASA grounded its shuttle fleet for safety upgrades after the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Columbus "is our cornerstone, our baby, our module, our laboratory," said Alan Thirkettle, ESA's space station manager.
Columbus can hold 10 telephone booth-sized racks of experiments. One called Biolab will be used for experiments on microbes, cells, small plants and insects. An experiment using salmonella bacteria carried on Atlantis in 2006 showed the germs become more virulent in low gravity.
Another will be used to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body, including the brain and heart, while a third will test the dynamics of fluids in zero gravity.
If Atlantis is launched on time, it will arrive at the space station on Saturday for a week-long construction mission. Columbus will become the second dedicated laboratory at the outpost and Europe's first permanent base in space.
Atlantis' seven-man crew will oversee the lab's installation, which will require three spacewalks. If time and supplies allow, NASA wants to extend Atlantis' stay at the station an extra two days and add a fourth spacewalk to inspect and begin fixing a problem with the station's power system.
The issue involves a contaminated rotary joint needed to spin a pair of solar panels so they can track the sun for power. The joint will need to be repaired before the arrival of the next laboratory, Japan's Kibo complex, in 2008.
The Atlantis crew includes two veteran European astronauts.
Germany's Hans Schlegel flew on a German-sponsored Spacelab shuttle flight in 1993 and Leopold Eyharts of France spent three weeks in 1998 on the Russian station Mir.
"The most interesting questions to me will be 'How much will my body remember? How much will I be able to cope with all these difficulties (of adapting to space) so I can go on and do the other necessary tasks?"' Schlegel said in an interview.
U.S. astronauts on the flight include commander Stephen Frick, pilot Alan Poindexter, flight engineer Rex Walheim, Leland Melvin and Stanley Love.
The crew is scheduled to begin boarding the shuttle shortly after noon. It will be the first flight for Poindexter, Melvin and Love. The rest will be flying for the second time.
Thursday's launch of Atlantis will be NASA's 24th shuttle mission to the multinational space station, with nine more assembly flights and two resupply missions remaining before the U.S. space agency retires the shuttle fleet in 2010.
Atlantis is scheduled to fly its final mission in August, a servicing call to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA is developing new, capsule-style spaceships called Orion to go to the station, as well as to the moon and beyond.
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Michael Christie and Eric Beech)