Atlantis crew readies to attach Destiny lab to space station

Saturday, February 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ Astronauts faced the delicate task of removing the $1.4 billion science laboratory Destiny from the space shuttle Atlantis and mounting it onto the international space station.

Astronaut Marsha Ivins, the robot-arm operator, will have just 2 inches of clearance when she slowly lifts the lab from its tight berth in Atlantis' payload bay on Saturday.

Since Destiny's cost is so high, there is no backup module; if Destiny is damaged or destroyed, space station construction would be on hold for years.

``We try not to think about the cost of the lab,'' shuttle commander Kenneth Cockrell said. ``It's certainly nothing that we could pay back if we ruined it.''

Spacewalkers Tom Jones and Robert Curbeam will be floating outside the shuttle to assist Ivins and connect electrical, computer and cooling lines between the lab and the space station once the lab has been mounted on Alpha. Two more spacewalks are scheduled during the mission to finish connecting and outfitting the lab.

Just before the start of Saturday's spacewalk, Ivins used the robotic arm to remove a docking port from the space station to make room for Destiny. The docking port had been latched onto the station for more than two years. To capture the moment, Cockrell played a recording of the song : ``Release Me.'' The docking port was to be moved to a temporary location on the station.

Earlier in the morning, the pilots had to fire Atlantis' thrusters to raise the shuttle-station complex by about a mile to avoid a piece of Russian space junk that was supposed to pass within 820 feet. The maneuver put the complex at a safe distance from the debris.

Destiny holds 13 computers and all the systems necessary to run the entire space station. NASA expects to take over control of the station from the Russians in a month or two.

On Sunday, the shuttle and station crews will jointly open up the lab and start setting up its systems.

The lab also has a 20-inch porthole that is described as the finest optical-quality window ever built into a spacecraft. Earth observations are planned through the window, using cameras and telescopes.

On Friday, Atlantis docked with Alpha and the two crews greeted each other after hatches between the spacecraft were opened.

After docking, the shuttle crew of five astronauts delivered supplies and gifts to the Alpha crew, including a computer, cables for the laboratory, food, water, clothes and about 20 DVD movies.

Alpha commander Bill Shepherd and his two Russian crewmates moved into the space station at the beginning of November and welcomed another shuttle crew in December.