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Europe's space lab arrives in Florida

NASA welcomes Europe's international space station laboratory Columbus to the shuttle launch site in Florida, hoping its stay in a hangar won't be long.
/ Source: Reuters

NASA welcomed Europe's Columbus laboratory to the shuttle launch site in Florida on Friday, hoping its stay in a hangar filled with gear awaiting rides to the international space station won't be long.

The 26-foot-long (8-meter-long) cylindrical module is the heart of the European Space Agency's contribution to the space station. Construction of the outpost has been on hold since the Columbia tragedy in 2003 and the subsequent grounding of the shuttle fleet for safety upgrades.

NASA wanted to resume assembly last year, but problems during the first post-Columbia shuttle mission in July prompted another suspension of flights. The agency is preparing for its next shuttle launch next month.

If all goes as planned, station assembly could resume as early as August.

"This will not be an easy task for this team," NASA's space station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier said during a Columbus welcoming ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center. "It is the largest task we have ever done."

NASA needs to fly 16 missions to the space station to finish assembly, and must do so before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

The processing hangar that now houses Columbus is stocked with trusses, solar power arrays, a connecting node and Japan's massive laboratory, Kibo. So far the only lab that has made it into orbit is the United States' Destiny module.

Three more Japanese components, another connection node and an addition to the station's Canadian-built robot arm are still to come.

"It's pretty full in here already," said Gerstenmaier.

Sixteen nations participate in the space station project.

Columbus is scheduled for launch in September 2007. "That's the last, but most important part of its journey," said ESA's Alan Thirkettle.

The module, which spans about 15 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter, will be inspected to make sure it made its trans-Atlantic journey safely, then moved into a vacuum chamber for leak checks. By March, technicians will begin preparing the module for launch.