Atlantis is carrying five astronauts and a new addition for the space station: a $1.4 billion science laboratory. Once attached to the station, the Destiny lab module will house computers and equipment for scientific research. It will also serve as the space station’s command and control center.
Shuttle commander Kenneth Cockrell and his crew are due to dock at the space station Friday. They will use the shuttle’s robotic arm to lift the lab from the payload bay and attach it to the space station. The astronauts will conduct three spacewalks to complete the exterior connection. They will prepare the interior — including computer software work — over the course of the 11-day mission. Cockrell said the installation process will require “a lot of things that have to work together, a bunch of sequential miracles.”
The American-built Destiny is 28 feet long, 14 feet in diameter and weighs 32,000 pounds. Primary contractor Boeing began work on the lab in 1995. Its hefty price tag ruled out construction of a backup in case it is damaged during the flight.
NASA says astronauts on Destiny will conduct experiments involving fluids, metals, semiconductors, flames and plants, with applications in cancer, diabetes and materials research. The space agency also hopes to learn more about the human body and its response to radiation and weightlessness. Such information is needed before astronauts fly to Mars.
The international space station is an effort of 16 countries, including the American, Russian, European, Canadian and Japanese space agencies. The project is now expected to cost more than $60 billion.
A work in progress, the station is scheduled to receive several more research lab modules in the coming years. It is expected to be fully operational in 2006 and has an anticipated lifetime of 10-15 years. The first permanent crew — an American and two Russians — arrived last November.
Today’s launch had been delayed three weeks for inspection of the shuttle’s booster wiring. It was almost called off again due to rain and clouds at NASA’s emergency landing sites in Morocco and Spain. But the weather cleared and the launch went ahead.