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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Space station shaping multinational

Though no stranger to human spaceflight, Europe's astronauts were eager on Wednesday to leap ahead with the launch of the continent's first permanent home in Earth orbit.

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center, ground crews readied the shuttle Atlantis to lift off at 3:31 p.m. Thursday, Houston time, with the European Space Agency's school bus-sized science module Columbus.

The lab, named for 15th century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, will be installed at the international space station using robot-arm operations and three spacewalks.

"We are very excited and extremely proud of what is happening," said Alan Thirkettle, manager of the ESA's nearly quarter-century space station effort.

The new module gives the European alliance an unprecedented foothold in space.

The International Space Station, which NASA has long touted as a model of global cooperation, is finally about to become multinational.
Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to blast off today on an 11-day mission to drop off the station's first European room, a laboratory called Columbus. The lab will add diversity to an orbital center that, though funded by 14 countries, has been strictly binational.

The 9-year-old station's nine rooms are owned by two countries, Russia and the United States. Thirty-seven of the 38 astronauts who have lived there are Russian or American.

For Europeans, Columbus "is the start of manned spaceflight," says Atlantis crewmember Hans Schlegel of Germany. "All of a sudden we have a module of our own, which is available to us 24 hours (a day), 365 days a year."
On Wednesday, NASA reported no glitches with Atlantis and a 90% chance of good weather for launch.

Also being delivered to the station by Atlantis: French astronaut LĂ©opold Eyharts, who's expected to stay two months and will do the first experiments inside Columbus. He'll be the station's second European Union resident, after Thomas Reiter of Germany, who lived on the station last year.

Columbus is just the beginning. In February, a robotic European spaceship will make its debut stop at the station. In the spring, shuttles are scheduled to deliver two Japanese labs to the station.

The changes "will finally allow us to realize the full benefit of this international partnership," says Kenny Todd, the station's integration manager. "That's something we've looked forward to for a very, very long time."

It's also something NASA has worried about for a long time. A more international station also means multiple Mission Control Centers in multiple time zones. It means an onslaught of Earth-to-space chatter and more chances for cross-cultural misunderstandings.

The risk is that "your words are not coming across as you mean them," Schlegel says, because of "limited knowledge of that language, with (no) eye-to-eye contact."

"It was easy when it was just us talking to Houston," Atlantis commander Stephen Frick says. "Now we have a much larger conversation going on. … It's been an interesting dance to choreograph."

The $2.1 billion laboratory, named after explorer Christopher Columbus, was built by the Paris-based European Space Agency and set to launch in 2002. It was delayed in part by the 2003 disintegration of shuttle Columbia, which grounded the shuttle fleet.

"The scientists were on our case," recalls the European Space Agency's Daniele Laurini, an Italian based at NASA's Houston campus. "We had to keep our politicians together, and that's not an easy task."

The lab that will finally launch on Atlantis is roughly as big inside as an RV and holds gear for experiments in biology, the behavior of fluids in space and other subjects. It will be operated by engineers at a Mission Control near Munich, Germany, who will use English to communicate with the engineers in Mission Control in Houston.

The station's crew, which includes Eyharts, the USA's Peggy Whitson and Russia's Yuri Malenchenko, will have to be in radio contact with Munich, Houston and Russia's Mission Control in Moscow, all at once. The airwaves are divided, so crewmembers can talk to different control centers without drowning one another out.

"When you have more and more people … responsible for the task at hand, coordination gets to be a real challenge," Frick says. He hopes the rules they've worked out will ensure that "we don't talk over each other."

It's going to get even more complex. The European robotic spaceship that will start flying to the station next year will be run from a Mission Control in France. The Japanese labs to be added in 2008 will have a Mission Control in Japan.

"They'll figure out a way to do it," says Clayton Anderson, whose station stay ended in October. Still, he says, cacophony in space "is one of the concerns I have. You can't have too many people driving the train."

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