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Science lab will boost Europe's status in space

For 25 years, European space pioneers ran their experiments on orbital outposts owned by other nations. Now Europe is claiming its own stake in space with the launch of the Columbus science laboratory.
Image: ISS module Columbus
This picture from May 2007 shows the Columbus laboratory module in Bremen, Germany, being checked by engineers before its transfer to NASA in Florida. Ingo Wagner / EPA
/ Source: Reuters

Europe will set down its own stake in space next week with the launch of the Columbus science laboratory to the international space station, ending a quarter-century in which European space pioneers had to run their experiments on orbital outposts owned by others.

Tucked inside the cargo hold of the space shuttle Atlantis, the 23-foot-long, 15-foot-diameter European module is scheduled for liftoff on Dec. 6 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“From the Kennedy perspective, we’re ready to go and looking forward to next week,” launch director Mike Leinbach said at a briefing on Friday following a daylong meeting to review the shuttle’s flight preparations.

Liftoff was set for 4:31 p.m. ET.

Its arrival two days later at the space station marks the end of a herculean effort costing more than $1 billion to establish Europe’s first permanent base in space.

“Europe in the past has been a strong player in manned spaceflight and that is without question,” Atlantis crew member and European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel said in an interview.

“But this now has all of a sudden changed. Columbus will stay our property. Our flight control center will control Columbus. We have the right to do experiments around the clock. When we have a new idea, we can bring it up and (research) it in our own lab,” he said.

Europe had planned Columbus’ debut for 2002 and budgeted accordingly. But delays largely caused by the grounding of the U.S. space shuttles after the 2003 Columbia disaster put Columbus’ launch on hold. ESA partner countries were forced to ante up additional funds to keep manufacturing teams and scientists on the project.

“There was tremendous uncertainty,” said Columbus project manager Bernardo Patti.

The first attempt at fixing the shuttles failed, triggering another year-long delay. Project managers used the postponements for testing and to make some improvements to the module, including high-speed data capabilities.

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They also successfully negotiated for an earlier launch slot. NASA originally wanted to complete the station’s outer frame and solar power systems before adding European, and later Japanese, modules.

“If we had kept the same assembly sequence we could be launching in 2008 or 2009 and that was not going to work for us because our taxpayers were becoming increasingly nervous,” Patti said.

Columbus has room for 10 experiment racks, half of which are reserved for United States’ use in exchange for launching the module. Europe plans to pay its share of station operational costs by providing cargo ships to ferry food, water, fuel and supplies to the outpost.
The first launch of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, is scheduled for early next year.

“This will be a tremendous step. We are becoming a more important partner for the international spaceflight community,” Schlegel said.

Hooking up Columbus will occupy most of the shuttle crew’s schedule during their weeklong stay at the space station.

France’s Leopold Eyharts, who has made one spaceflight and is flying on Atlantis, will stay aboard the outpost for about two and a half months to get the lab ready.

“We never had a permanent base in space before and I see that like a first step for Europe in the real spaceflight activities compared to what we had in the past,” said Eyharts.

Europe previously developed two shuttle-toted research laboratories called Spacelab that flew several short-duration missions between 1983 and 1997. European astronauts also served on the Russian Mir station and aboard the space station.

“We will be a senior partner in our international partnership,” Schlegel said.

“If nothing else,” he added, “I think the international space station is a role model how, in the future, we as humankind have to tackle our big problems and solve them: only in cooperation, and taking advantage of the capabilities of other nations, of other peoples, of other cultures.”