The Atlantis orbiter roared from its launch pad at Cape Canveral, in Florida, today at 2:45 pm EST. In its cargo bay, it carried the Columbus Laboratory, which has been waiting transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) for nearly two years. Early forecasts calling for overcast conditions at launch time evaporated in the Florida sunshine and lift-off occurred exactly on schedule.
The flight, the 24th shuttle mission to the ISS and known as STS-122, took about 8.5 minutes to rise into orbit. Its principal mission is to attach the Columbus science module, built by the European Space Agency (ESA), to the space station.
Columbus has long been considered a key element to the ISS platform and was approved for construction by the participating members of ESA some 22 years ago originally. Once installed and integrated into the ISS, in future spacewalks, it will double the capabilities for scientific research from orbit, joining the U.S.-made Destiny Laboratory. Command and control of the new science lab will be handled by the Columbus Control Centre, in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. Its launch today brings an end to flight delays caused by backlogs in the American space program brought on chiefly by the tragic loss of the Columbia orbiter in 2003.
According to NASA, the crew of Atlantis consists of Commander Steve Frick, Pilot Alan Poindexter, and Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love and the European Space Agency's Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts.
For those online, NASA has provided an STS-122 Blog, where space junkies can get caught up on every detail of the mission, as well as plenty of video and podcasts. For sports junkies, Atlantis is carrying three starter's flags for the upcoming Daytona 500 stock-car race (see Atlantis to Help Mark NASCAR Milestone). NASA is marking the 50 anniversary of its creation this year and the big NASCAR race is celebrating its 50th annual running, as well. Upon the return of Atlantis, scheduled 11 days from now, one of the flags will be used to start the "Great American Race."
The current mission of Atlantis was first targeted for early December, but persistent problems with sensors in the vehicle's external liquid-fuel tank caused administrators to postpone its launch on multiple occasions. (See our previous blogs Bad Day for a Space Launch, Glitch Grounds Space Shuttle for Weeks, and NASA Sets New Dates for Next Shuttle Launches.) Today, the four sensors worked perfectly.
Atlantis will also pick up American astronaut Daniel Tani, whose stay aboard the ISS has been extended far longer than anticipated by the faulty fuel sensor problem. Tani has been working on space station assignments since late October. He had been scheduled to return home in time to spend the December holidays with his young family. Sadly, his mother was killed in an auto accident days after his return was postponed (see our item Sad Holiday for Space Station Astronaut). He will be replaced on the ISS by Eyharts, a general in the French Air Force.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the Associated Press today: "We're coming back, and I think we are back, from some pretty severe technical problems that led to the loss of Columbia." He said he was looking forward to a stretch of problem-free space flights that " should be like some of those earlier times when we had some fairly interrupted stretches with no technical problems where we could just fly."