Atlantis Due to Blast Off with European Science Lab

Space shuttle Atlantis is due to blast off with a science lab called Columbus inside its cargo bay for long-term research. Columbus is designed to operate for 10 years, and will double research capacity. It was built for the European Space Agency and will be controlled from Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Life on the space shuttle is about to become a little more continental. Atlantis was scheduled to blast off today. A problem with the fuel tank has delayed it at least until tomorrow. Waiting to head into space in the shuttle's cargo bay: a science lab called Columbus. It was built for the European Space Agency, and it will be monitored from a small town in Germany.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The German ambassador in Washington D.C. held an event this week to mark the launch of the Columbus lab. Everyone swarmed around former astronaut Thomas Reiter. His work in the European Astronaut Corps made him a star. Last year, he lived on the space station for six months, floating around rooms built mostly by the United States and Russia.

Mr. THOMAS REITER (Former Astronaut): You know, I never felt like a foreigner on the station as it was.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he thinks once Columbus goes up, European astronauts will love having a room of their own.

Mr. REITER: I think everyone can imagine if you are in such a huge station and you have a module where you can say, well, this was built in your own country, this is something special.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Two European astronauts will be on board Atlantis, but Reiter won't be one of them. He now works for the German Space Agency, and he's been intimately involved in developing Columbus. He says the room is over 20 feet long, with science equipment built into its walls. It will run experiments on things like how plants grow and how liquids behave in space. But Reiter suspects that astronauts won't just work in the lab.

Mr. REITER: The station is quite noisy due to the lots of ventilators that are running.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But in tests on the ground, he thought Columbus seemed remarkably quiet.

Mr. REITER: Maybe it will be a famous place where people gather, not only for work, but also because it's a nice quiet place where they probably want to hear music or do things like that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A couple of months ago, he took his last look at the lab as it was being prepared for launch.

Mr. REITER: It's a kind of funny feeling if you have been working for such a long time in the module and then you see it the last time on Earth, and you know, the next time you will see pictures, it's in orbit.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This won't be Europe's first orbiting science lab. In the '80s and '90s the European Space Agency flew a reusable lab on NASA's shuttle, but it only went up for short missions.

Columbus is designed to operate for 10 years, and it will double the space station's research capacity. European countries have ponied up over a billion dollars to make this all happen.

Mikhail Manking(ph) works for the company that got the main contract to build the lab. He says its mission control won't be Houston. Instead it will be monitored from a town in Bavaria.

Mr. MIKHAIL MANKING: It's called Oberpfaffenhofen. It's a small town very close to Munich.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I think that American astronauts may have some trouble saying that.

Mr. MANKING: Yes, right. So therefore they will call it Columbus Control Center, I'm pretty sure.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says Columbus is a very big deal for Europe's human space flight program, and others agree.

Frederic Nordlund represents the European Space Agency in the United States. He calls this flight a turning point.

Mr. FREDERIC NORDLUND (European Space Agency): We already have some hardware onboard the station, and we had astronauts flying to the station, but this time around it's different.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he says in a few weeks Europe is also planning to launch a new unmanned spaceship. It's a kind of robotic delivery truck that will carry food, water, and other supplies up to the station.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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