New era to begin with European space lab Columbus


Washington : A new chapter is about to begin in international space flight. Think of it as the arrival of the Europeans.

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After years of waiting, the US space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and deliver the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station. German astronaut Hans Schlegel and French astronaut Leopold Eyharts will also be on board.

The mission really marks the launch of manned space travel for the Europeans, said Schlegel, 56. And there will be a lot at stake for German science.

“This is history,” said Eyharts, 50, who will remain on the station to start the first experiments after his shuttle crewmates leave. “Europe is doing today things that we never did before. This is really a first step into permanent operations in space.”

The ESA lab, built mostly by EADS-Astrium in Bremen, Germany, was supposed to go into operation in 2004. But when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board, shuttle flights were suspended.

That was the beginning of a difficult time, said a Bremen engineer who worked on the Columbus space lab. Skeptics wanted to write off the project, which would have meant a loss of the 880 million euros ($1.3 billion) already invested in it.

So far, Americans have set the tone of the ISS, which is orbiting Earth 400 kilometres over head. But that will change after successful delivery of the 13-ton Columbus module, which experts consider a jewel of science.

It has seven fixed racks that can be used for various types of research. The types of experiments range from medical to material research – from the study of single-cell organisms and invertebrates to the basic physics of fluids.

“Only the core question is the same in all the experiments. What happens in zero gravity?” said Columbus chief engineer Ruediger Kledzik of Bremen.

A series of experiments have looked at the bone and muscle deterioration in zero gravity. In the weightlessness of space humans lose 10 percent of their muscle mass per month, one expert said. Researchers on board Columbus will try to use the time-lapse effect with two goals in mind: to better understand how to fight diseases such as osteoporosis and to gain knowledge about future space flights that could last several months.

A flight to Mars and back, for example, would take about two years. A solution to the problem of muscle and bone loss must be found before such a mission takes place, the expert said.

But first Columbus must dock on the ISS, a job for which Schlegel – a physicist and German army paratrooper – is responsible. He must make two space walks during the 11-day shuttle mission.

During the first walk, a giant robotic arm will lift Columbus out of the shuttle’s payload bay. Schlegel and US astronaut Rex Walheim will then prepare the lab for docking. They will also replace a nitrogen tank assembly used to pressurize the ISS’s outside cooling system.

Schlegel’s duties also include testing all the seals on the dock and connecting electrical power, water and air cooling systems, air ducts and data cables so that Columbus becomes part of the space station, Schlegel said in an interview posted on the NASA website.

“It’s not easy to imagine what kind of provisions you really need to make Columbus an integral part of the space station, interacting as well, and all that is done during the first day,” Schlegel said.

Each space walk will last six-and-a-half hours, NASA said. Schlegel, who was aboard a Columbia flight as a payload specialist in 1993, said the hardest thing will be to maintain the highest possible level of concentration while completing all his tasks.

On a third scheduled space walk, Walheim and US astronaut Stan Love will transfer experiments to the exterior of Columbus and retrieve a gyroscope. Schlegel said one of the payloads to be transferred would measure various parameters of the sun and another, called the European Technology Exposure Facility, will take advantage of the vacuum, radiation and special environment in space to carry out experiments.

While Schlegel will fly back to Earth with Atlantis after the delivery and successful docking of Columbus, Eyharts will stay on the ISS for two to three months.

And so while Schlegel helps connect Columbus, Eyharts will get the spoils. The Frenchman will be the first person to enter the Columbus module -something he predicted would be a “very emotional moment.”