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Space shuttle Atlantis to launch with Columbus lab

The European Space Agency's long-term plans for manned space flight rest on the successful launch of the module scheduled Thursday.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2008

Atlantis: The space shuttle crew, led by commander Stephen Frick, walk out the Kennedy Space Center landing facility in Florida Monday.

John Raoux/AP

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The United States and Russia are about to get a new long-term neighbor on the International Space Station.

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The space shuttle Atlantis is set for launch Thursday – barring bad weather – to carry Europe's $1.6 billion Columbus laboratory to the orbiting outpost. Coming after a two-month delay due to technical problems, the launch is a coming-out party of sorts for Europe's manned-spaceflight program.

It is also a test case for legal agreements on collaborative space exploration.

The Columbus lab plays a key role in the European Union's long-term plans for manned spaceflight, including future planetary exploration. After nearly 25 years of designs and redesigns, renegotiated agreements, and launch delays, Europe will finally see its hardware in orbit.

"We have been through difficult times, but we have overcome them together," says Daniele Laurini, the European Space Agency's liaison with the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In March and April, the major components of Japan's lab are scheduled for launch as well, bringing the station closer to completion.

The Europeans are wasting no time putting the 10.3-ton lab to work. Atlantis's seven-member crew includes two European astronauts. Both will help get the lab ready for use once it's mated to the station. One will remain on the station to conduct experiments.

"The missions that we've had up to this point have focused on building the backbone of the international space station and providing the power" and other capabilities the station needs to run all the labs and support up to six astronauts, says Mike Sarafin, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's lead flight director for Atlantis's 12-day trip.

While the station focuses on research, it also represents a lab of a different sort, notes Joanne Gabrynowicz, director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the University of Mississippi in University, Miss. "We tend to focus on engineering and science" in talking about the space station's value, she says. "But at the same time, this is a test bed for law and policy" governing international space exploration.

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