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Shuttle Atlantis docks with Space Station

by Staff Writers
Houston, Texas (AFP) Feb 9, 2008
The US space shuttle Atlantis and its seven member crew docked at the orbiting International Space Station Saturday to deliver the first ever European-made laboratory.

The crew entered the space station after the hatches between the station and shuttle opened at 1840 GMT, marking a milestone in Europe's space role with the docking of the shuttle carrying the European-made, 10-ton Columbus laboratory.

Columbus is the first ISS addition not made in the United States or Russia.

Now that they have docked, astronauts will use the ISS's robotic arm to transfer Columbus out of the shuttle's payload bay and attach it to the station.

Three spacewalks are also planned for the mission. The shuttle is scheduled to return to Earth on February 18.

Columbus, which is to be installed Sunday, is a cylinder seven meters (23 feet) long and 4.5 meters (15 feet) in diameter that has room for up to three people. The lab will be used for biotechnology and medicine experiments involving microgravity.

The lab cost some 1.3 billion euros (two billion dollars), paid mostly by Germany, Italy and France.

On their first day in orbit Friday the Atlantis crew -- including astronauts from France and Germany -- trained a high-definition camera mounted on the shuttle's robotic arm on the spaceship's thermal shield.

The aim was to search for any damage from a loose piece of insulation that broke off during liftoff, NASA said.

Mission Management Team Chairman John Shannon told reporters that three small foam losses from the shuttle Atlantis' external fuel tank were filmed in the minutes after liftoff Thursday.

While the first two pieces appeared to have missed the shuttle, Shannon said the third one may have struck the underside of the craft, although its mass and speed were too small, given the altitude at the time, to cause any damage to the heat tiles.

"So, from an ascent standpoint, what we have seen so far from the ground cameras and the onboard cameras, it looks like we had an extremely clean launch and ascent," he said.

The shuttle will receive a more complete inspection when the ISS astronauts take video images of its entire thermal shield.

Examining the shuttle's heat shield became established procedure after the February 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster. A piece of foam insulation broke off during Columbia's liftoff, damaging the shuttle's external heat tiles and leading to the craft's destruction when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere killing seven astronauts.

The Atlantis crew includes astronauts Leopold Eyharts of France and Hans Schlegel of Germany. Currently US and Russian astronauts are aboard the space station.

Schlegel will conduct two spacewalks during the flight to connect power and fluid lines between Columbus and the ISS.

Eyharts will begin Europe's second longest stay on the space station by replacing US astronaut Dan Tani. The German astronaut of ESA, Thomas Reiter, stayed six months in the station in 2006.

Atlantis was originally scheduled for blastoff on December 6 as part of the tight schedule of shuttle flights to complete ISS construction by 2010, when the three-craft US shuttle fleet is to be retired.

But malfunctioning circuits in the fuel gauges of the spacecraft's liquid hydrogen tank forced a two-month delay until the problem was fixed.

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NASA Launches Atlantis
Cape Canaveral FL (AFP) Feb 07, 2008
After two months of technical delays and storm clouds throughout the day, NASA has launched Space Shuttle Atlantis at 2.45pm local time. The mission is to deliver the 10-tonne European laboratory unit Columbus to the International Space Station. With room inside for three people and operated by ground staff at a control center near Munich, Germany, Columbus will enable the European Space Agency to conduct experiments related to biotechnology, medicine, materials and liquids.

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