- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

HOUSTON (AP) — With the Columbus lab now secured to the International Space Station, the 10 orbiting astronauts rolled up their sleeves yesterday for their next big job: getting the lab running.

Crew members spent yesterday morning hooking up power, fluid and data lines linking the new module to the station before French astronaut Leopold Eyharts briefly floated inside for the first time. Checking around with his headlamp, he said the lab appeared to be in good shape.

“This is a great moment,” he said.

American spacewalkers Rex Walheim and Stanley Love helped install Europe’s shiny new $2 billion lab on Monday. The astronauts shouted and cheered when the 23-foot, 14-ton lab reached its docking port on the station, after a slow move out of Atlantis’ payload bay.

Atlantis’ crew members received more good news yesterday, when Mission Control said they would not have to repair a thermal blanket that has a torn corner. Engineers are confident that the blanket, near the shuttle’s tail, will stand up to the intense heat of re-entry at flight’s end.

The European Space Agency waited years to see Columbus fly. The lab was supposed to go up in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the sailing of Christopher Columbus, but space station and then shuttle problems delayed everything.

The addition of Columbus expanded the almost 10-year-old space station to eight rooms. It was attached directly to the Harmony compartment that arrived last fall. Another of Harmony’s docking ports will be occupied by Japan’s new lab once it launches in the spring.

Additional work on the lab’s exterior will be performed during a second spacewalk today and a third on Friday. Unless flight surgeons object, German astronaut Hans Schlegel is expected to make today’s spacewalk, along with Mr. Walheim, an Air Force colonel.

Mr. Schlegel was supposed to float outside with Mr. Walheim to help with Columbus’ hookup, but became sick after last week’s liftoff and was replaced by Mr. Love. The last-minute switch in crew prompted NASA to delay Columbus’ installation by a day and lengthen Atlantis’ space station visit.

U.S. and European space officials have not divulged the illness, and Atlantis commander Stephen Frick dodged the issue when interviewers from Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” asked about Mr. Schlegel’s health.

He said Mr. Schlegel was busy getting Columbus ready “so we can go in and start working in the lab.”

The astronauts also participated in a chat with music impresario Quincy Jones and radio talk show host Tavis Smiley. Astronaut Leland Melvin, a pianist, carried into orbit a recording of Mr. Jones’ 1969 Grammy Award-winning “Walking in Space.”

Mr. Melvin said he thinks Mr. Jones’ music inspires the kind of creativity that one day will lead astronauts to Mars and beyond.

“It has something that reaches into your soul and it makes you think,” he said. “It makes you wonder. That’s exactly what we need to do.”

A formal ceremony marking the lab’s grand opening was set for yesterday afternoon.

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