February 12, 2008 / 2:15 AM / 11 years ago

Astronauts open hatch to Europe's new space lab

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Two European astronauts slipped inside Europe’s newly installed Columbus laboratory module on Tuesday while crewmates prepared for a second spacewalk to outfit the International Space Station for new additions.

The European Space Agency's Columbus module is seen at the lower right at its new installed location perpendicular to the Harmony module of the International Space Station in this image from NASA TV February 12, 2008. REUTERS/NASA

The 23-foot(7-metre)-long laboratory, equipped for medical, pharmaceutical and physics experiments, is Europe’s first permanent space base and the prime contribution of a $5 billion investment in the space station program.

“This is a great moment,” French astronaut Leopold Eyharts radioed to ground control teams in Houston and Munich before entering the module for the first time since it reached orbit on Thursday aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

“We are very proud,” added crewmate Hans Schlegel, of Germany. “It starts a new era. The European scientific module Columbus and the ISS are connected for many, many years of research in space in cooperation, internationally.”

The visiting Atlantis crew installed the laboratory on Monday following an extended eight-hour spacewalk. Rookie astronaut Stan Love paired with lead spacewalker Rex Walheim for the outing after Schlegel developed an undisclosed medical ailment.

Schlegel remained scheduled to join Walheim for a second spacewalk on Wednesday to replace a spent nitrogen tank used to pressurize the station’s coolant system.

One job the shuttle crew will not have to worry about is fixing a loose insulation blanket on one of Atlantis’ steering engines. The insulation likely tore during Atlantis’ climb to orbit on Thursday. The shuttle crew made an extra inspection of the area on Sunday.

European Space Agency astronaut Leopold Eyharts of France enters the still dark Columbus module for the first time after the hatch was opened to the newest addition to the International Space Station in this image from NASA TV February 12, 2008. REUTERS/NASA

“Good news,” astronaut Kevin Ford from Mission Control told Atlantis commander Stephen Frick on Tuesday. “The analysis clearly shows there’s no safety of flight issue. So the area has officially been cleared for entry.”

“It’s a relief to know we don’t have to go back there and mess with it,” said Frick.

NASA is about 60 percent finished building the $100 billion outpost. During the next shuttle flight scheduled for launch March 11, astronauts plan to begin installing what will be the station’s largest laboratory, the Japanese-built Kibo complex.

“We’re very, very much looking forward to having (Japan) join us next month,” said Alan Thirkettle, the Europe Space Agency’s space station program manager.

Slideshow (23 Images)

Europe waited more than five years for its Columbus module to reach orbit due to problems in both the United States and Russia, the prime space station partners.

Russian financial issues delayed launch of the station’s crew module for two years and the 2003 Columbia accident put construction of the outpost on hold for 3 1/2 years.

Now NASA has just two years to compete the 11 remaining station construction and resupply flights.

Europe has high hopes for its orbital outpost, including research to benefit a wide variety of industries.

“The mechanical guys have done their bit,” Thirkettle said. “(Tuesday) we get the electricians and the plumbers in to hook it up.”

Editing by Jane Sutton and David Wiessler

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