CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After two decades of waiting, Europeans are celebrating the arrival of their first piece of orbital real estate in space.
"It's a great day for ESA," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general for the European Space Agency (ESA), of the Columbus laboratory's launch today aboard the space shuttle Atalantis. "From now on ESA is a visible and concrete partner of the International Space Station."
Atlantis lugged the 13.5-ton polished cylinder into orbit Thursday along with the seven-astronaut crew of the STS-122 mission commanded by Stephen Frick. NASA expects the orbiter to dock with the orbital outpost on Saturday afternoon and begin operations to install Columbus on Sunday morning.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's spaceflight chief, said technicians spotted three small chunks of foam insulation fall from Atlantis' external fuel tank as the spacecraft reached orbit. NASA has kept a close watch on such foam debris since the 2003 Columbia tragedy because they can damage an orbiter's fragile heat shield.
"It's fairly small foam loss compared to what we've seen in the past," Gerstenmaier said. "We didn't see anything abnormal."
Europe on orbit
While NASA pores over the launch footage, ESA officials celebrated Columbus' orbital arrival after two decades of work and preparation with popping corks and champagne.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin called Atlantis' space shot today "one of the more significant shuttle launches we'll ever have" because of Atlantis' unique European payload.
"No launch can be any more momentous than the launch of Columbus," Griffin told reporters here at Kennedy Space Center. "It shows ... this is a real partnership among nations and societies to bring together a capability greater than any one nation could bring by itself."
Dordain also noted the importance of the ESA's Automated Transport Vehicle called Jules Verne. The autonomous spacecraft is slated to launch on March 8 and will ferry crucial supplies to the space station through 2015, including experimental payloads to the Columbus laboratory.
Spacewalks for science
The new Columbus module harbors 16 phone booth-sized racks and, once attached to the space station, will consume the energy of about four households when fully operational.
"For the first time, Europe will have this permanent base and will be able to actually experiment in space," astronaut Leopold Eyharts said before launching into space, noting that the ability to experiment will be "a key thing for the future of [space] exploration."
Spaceflyers Rex Walheim and Hans Schlegel, an ESA astronaut, will venture outside of the space station on Sunday around 9:35 a.m. EST (1435 GMT) to prepare Columbus for its attachment to the Harmony module. A third and final spacewalk planned for Feb. 14 will outfit the bus-sized lab with two external experiments to study the sun and space environment.
"It's a tremendous contribution to the space station," Frick has said of the Columbus lab. "It fills half the payload bay and it's going to take all of our docked time to try to get it going."
Atlantis is scheduled to begin wrapping up its 11-day mission on Saturday Feb. 16, when the orbiter will depart from the space station with Expedition 16 astronaut Dan Tani. Eyharts will stay behind as his replacement. If all goes according to plan, the astronaut crew will return to Earth on Feb. 18.
NASA is broadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.