Atlantis takes Columbus to ISS

Atlantis finally blasted off Thursday afternoon carrying Europe’s Clumbus lab to the International Space Station. The cost of the laboratory is evaluated at $2 billion. The launch finally became possible after two months of technical delays.

The shuttle is due to arrive to the ISS on Saturday.

When Atlantis took off, European space officials cheered, some of them started crying. There was no trouble seen during the launch. Rain and storms were far away to the west too.

"We're all as excited as heck," said Alan Thirkettle, the European Space Agency's station program manager. "I've lost about 500 grams (about 1 pound) so far, and that's just been tears."

Twenty-three years in the making, Columbus is Europe's primary contribution to the space station. The lab has endured space station redesigns and slowdowns, as well as a number of shuttle postponements and two shuttle accidents.

Atlantis' commander, Stephen Frick, and his U.S., German and French crew will begin installing Columbus on Sunday. Three spacewalks are planned during the flight, scheduled to last 11 days or, more likely, 12 days.

Columbus will join the U.S. lab, Destiny, which was launched aboard Atlantis exactly seven years ago. The Japanese lab Kibo, or Hope, is so big it will take three shuttle trips to get everything up, beginning in March.

"Certainly, no launch can be any more momentous than the launch of Columbus, which brings to the space station truly international capability and participation," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.

To NASA's relief, all four fuel gauges in Atlantis' external fuel tank worked properly during the final stage of the countdown. The gauges failed in December because of a faulty connector, and NASA redesigned the part to fix the problem, which had been plaguing the shuttles for three years, the AP reports.

Thursday's launch kept NASA on track for six shuttle flights this year. The space agency faces a 2010 deadline for finishing the station and retiring the shuttles. That equates to four or five shuttle flights a year between now and then, something Griffin considers achievable.

"We're coming back, and I think we are back, from some pretty severe technical problems that led to the loss of Columbia. We understand the foam now," Griffin said, referring to the chunks of insulating foam that kept breaking off the fuel tanks.

Later in the day, Mission Control informed the crew that cameras spotted at least three pieces of foam or other debris coming off the fuel tank two minutes after liftoff. There was no evidence that the debris hit Atlantis, but the astronauts planned to pull out their laser inspection pole Friday to survey their spaceship, as per the normal procedure.

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