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New space lab coming alive, ill astronaut better

HOUSTON - Astronauts on the International Space Station slowly brought Europe's new space laboratory to life on Tuesday as crewmate Hans Schlegel, forced by illness to miss the spacewalk to install it, said he was feeling fine.
The European Space Agency's Columbus module is seen at the lower right at its new installed location perpendicular to the Harmony module of the International Space Station in this image from NASA TV February 12, 2008. (REUTERS/NASA)

The lab, known as Columbus, was hooked up with computers, power and a heating system ahead of activation of experiments in Europe's first permanent space research facility.

"This is a great moment," French astronaut Leopold Eyharts radioed to ground controllers in Houston and Munich before entering the module for the first time.

"We are very proud," added Schlegel of Germany. "It starts a new era. The European scientific module Columbus and the ISS are connected for many, many years of research in space in cooperation, internationally."

The 7-metre-long laboratory, equipped for medical, pharmaceutical and physics experiments, is Europe's prime contribution of a $5 billion investment in the space station program.

After years of delay, it launched on Thursday from Florida aboard space shuttle Columbus and was attached to the station on Monday during an eight-hour spacewalk.

Schlegel, 56, was to join Rex Walheim on the spacewalk but had to be replaced by Stan Love due to an illness that has not been disclosed.

He said in a media interview on Tuesday he was doing well and looking forward to taking part in the second spacewalk of Atlantis' mission on Wednesday.

"I feel really great right now. Of course I'm a little bit anxious because tomorrow is really my first (spacewalk)," said a fit-looking Schlegel.

"That's all I want to say because medical issues are private," Schlegel said, hewing to the non-disclosure line taken by NASA and the European Space Agency.

On Wednesday, he and Walheim are to replace a spent nitrogen tank used to pressurize the station's coolant system.

Walheim and Love are scheduled to make the third and final spacewalk of the mission on Friday. Atlantis is currently scheduled to return to Earth on Feb. 19.

NASA had been looking at a loose insulation blanket on one of Atlantis' steering engines to see if needed repair before landing but told the astronauts on Tuesday not to worry.

"Good news," flight communicator Kevin Ford at Mission Control told shuttle commander Stephen Frick. "The analysis clearly shows there's no safety of flight issue. So the area has officially been cleared for entry."

"It's a relief to know we don't have to go back there and mess with it," said Frick.

NASA is almost 60 percent finished building the $100 billion outpost. During the next shuttle flight scheduled for launch March 11, astronauts are to begin installing what will be the station's largest laboratory, the Japanese-built Kibo complex.

NASA has just two years to compete the 11 remaining station construction and resupply flights before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

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