posted: 07 February 2008 02:59 pm ET
By Dave Mosher and Tariq Malik
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. â€” After two months of delay, a new Columbus voyage set sail aboard NASA's shuttle Atlantis Thursday as seven astronauts rocketed toward the International Space Station (ISS) with a European-built lab.
Atlantis and its STS-122 astronaut crew thundered into space from a seaside launch pad here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, beginning an 11-day mission to deliver the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus laboratory to the ISS.
"We know the Columbus module's been many years in the making and we're looking forward to doing our part to bring it up to Peggy Whitson and her crew on the International Space Station," shuttle commander Stephen Frick said just before liftoff. "We're looking forward to a great flight and coming back to see our families in two weeks."
Atlantis launched at 2:45 p.m. EST (1945 GMT) with Frick, pilot Alan Poindexter, mission specialists Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, Leland Melvin and ESA spaceflyers Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts aboard. The astronauts plan to install Columbus, swap out a station crewmember and install new hardware and experiments to the station's exterior during their mission.
Atlantis' launch occurred just hours after a Russian cargo ship arrived at the ISS, as well as seven years to the day that the last science laboratory â€” the U.S. Destiny module â€” headed toward the station aboard the same space shuttle. Atlantis is scheduled to dock at the orbital lab on Saturday.
Delayed space shot
The mission has been delayed since early December after engine cut-off (ECO) sensors failed standard countdown tests during two launch attempts. The sensors act as fuel gauges and are designed to serve as a backup system to shut down a shuttle's three main engines before its external tank runs dry.
Engineers tracked the glitch to a faulty electrical connector at the bottom of Atlantis' fuel tank and replaced it with a modified design. The sensors performed flawlessly during today's launch, which reached orbit without requiring their backup protection.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said that engineers and managers were happy that the sensor repeatedly faulted last year so its flaws could be fixed.
"We won't have the ECO sensor problem again. We've licked it," Griffin told SPACE.com. "We finally got one to misbehave badly enough that it would do so repeatedly, and then we were able to solve the problem."
The successful launch marked NASA's first shuttle flight of up to six slated for 2008 â€” the most since the 2003 Columbia tragedy.
Thursday's afternoon liftoff kicked off NASA's 121st shuttle mission and the 24th bound for the ISS. It also marked the 29th launch of Atlantis, which is currently pegged for retirement after this summer's planned servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA plans to launch up to 11 more shuttle flights to the space station, and one to the Hubble Space Telescope, by the September 2010 retirement date for its aging three-orbiter fleet.
Columbus sets sail
Named after Christopher Columbus in honor of his Atlantic Ocean-crossing trip in 1492, the ESA's Columbus laboratory and its built-in experiment racks weighed about 13 tons at liftoff. By launching the module with science hardware already in place, ESA officials hope to jumpstart research aboard Columbus soon after it arrives at the ISS.
"In about four or six weeks time, we'll have commissioned Columbus," Thirkettle said of the module's outfitting. "We'll have started getting science down, we'll have started putting a smile on the faces of scientists, getting the results back that all of the investment has been there for."
More than 350 ESA representatives and supporters attended Atlantis' launch to see Columbus off this week, he added.
The ESA spent 1.4 billion Euro ($2 billion) to build Columbus, which will increase the space station's internal volume by about 2,648 cubic feet (75 cubic meters) once it is completely installed. Eyharts, a veteran ESA astronaut from France will christen the new lab when he replaces U.S. spaceflyer Dan Tani as an Expedition 16 flight engineer during the upcoming shuttle mission.
"This will be the first time Europe will have a permanent base in space," Eyharts said in a NASA interview. "Of course, this is very important, and this is very challenging."
Eyharts will spend about three months aboard the ISS with the station's Expedition 16 crew commanded by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. He and his STS-122 crewmates are slated to dock at station at 12:23 p.m. EST (1723 GMT) on Saturday. The shuttle is due to return to Earth on Feb. 18.
"It's fun to have visitors and we're looking forward to having them," Whitson has said. "Especially since they're bringing a new room for our house."
SPACE.com Senior Editor Tariq Malik contributed to this report from New York City.
NASA is broadcasting Atlantis' STS-122 mission live on NASA TV. Click here
for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASA TV feed.