Smooth sailing for shuttle and European lab: NASA

HOUSTON Fri Feb 8, 2008 5:15pm EST

1 of 17. The European Space Agency built Columbus module is seen in the foreground of this image from NASA TV of the payload bay of the Space Shuttle Atlantis with the earth in the background February 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/NASA

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - NASA said it was smooth sailing on Friday for U.S. space shuttle Atlantis as it headed toward the International Space Station for the long-delayed delivery of a European laboratory.

An initial inspection of the ship's heat shield turned up no significant damage following Thursday's launch from Florida, although more data must be studied, the U.S. space agency said.

A few bits of fuel tank insulation foam shook loose from the shuttle as it rose into space, but they appeared to have been harmless, NASA officials said.

Atlantis was scheduled to dock with the station on Saturday where it will attach the European Space Agency's Columbus module in the latest addition to the $100 billion space outpost.

Columbus was supposed to have been delivered in 2002, but has been delayed by events including the destruction of shuttle Columbia in 2003 that caused NASA to suspend shuttle flights for 2-1/2 years.

Columbia's demise was blamed on fuel tank foam that broke off and knocked a hole in the wing heat shield during launch.

The damage went undetected and led to the shuttle disintegrating when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board.

Friday's heat shield inspection, conducted by shuttle crewmembers using a sensor-laden robot arm, was a procedure NASA has included in all flights since Columbia.

The $1.9 billion Columbus module is the first permanent laboratory Europe will own and operate in space.

The 10 countries participating in the program hope their space research will result in new technologies, such as water purification techniques and more efficient turbine engines, and contribute to advances in pharmaceuticals and biological science.

The cylindrical module can hold 10 refrigerator-sized experiment racks within its 23-foot- (7-meter) long, 15-foot (4.5-meter) diameter chamber.

Space station commander Peggy Whitson, who turns 48 on Saturday, said in an interview from space that Columbus' arrival would help celebrate her birthday.

"My present is a new module," she said.

Atlantis is scheduled to return to Earth on February 18.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral; Editing by Eric Beech)

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