CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - To the pleasure of NASA's International Space Station partners, prospects were good for an on-time liftoff today of the shuttle Atlantis and Europe's long-awaited Columbus lab.

Columbus will be the second scientific laboratory added to the space station. NASA's Destiny lab made its debut in 2001, and Japan's huge lab Kibo, which means

hope

, will go up in three sections beginning with the shuttle mission in February.

Shuttle's commander Stephen Frick and his crew are keenly aware of how passionate the Europeans are about Columbus and how long they have waited. About 750 Europeans connected to the lab have begun gathering at the launch site, prompting one British official, Alan Thirkettle, to quip, "We've invaded."

Three of Frick's crew have waited almost 10 years for a shot at space. Frick noted that some of the scientists and engineers who have worked on Columbus have waited even longer - nearly a quarter-century - for the lab to fly.

Columbus is "our cornerstone, our baby, our module, our laboratory," said Thirkettle, the European Space Agency's station program manager.

The 17-nation European Space Agency has spent more than $7 billion so far on the space station program, including $2 billion for Columbus, Thirkettle said. That investment will reach $13 billion by the end of 2015.

For the first year or so, most of Columbus' experiments will be operated largely from the ground, Thirkettle said. There isn't the manpower in orbit; the three space station astronauts spend almost all their time on construction and maintenance work. Once the crew size doubles to six in 2009, Columbus will be able to run full blast.

"We don't have to wait so long," he said, laughingly referring to the more than 22 years that have passed since development of Columbus began. Much of the delay was NASA's fault - the space station's design repeatedly changed, and then the shuttle Columbia was destroyed in 2003, stalling everything.

The European Space Agency hopes to get at least 10 years' use out of Columbus, but that's still uncertain. NASA could end up pulling out of the space station in 2015 to focus on the moon. NASA's lunar exploration office hopes to capitalize on the space station between now and 2015, testing equipment and learning lessons to benefit future moon travelers.

Liftoff today is scheduled for 4:31 p.m.

About the Mission

Mission number:

STS-122; this will be the space shuttle program's 121st flight, and the 29th for Atlantis, which last flew in June.

Primary goal:

to attach the European-built Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station.

Scheduled launch:

4:31 p.m. today.

Scheduled landing:

Monday, Dec. 17.

Crew:

Steve Frick, 43, commander; Alan Poindexter, 46, pilot; and five mission specialists: Leland Melvin, 43; Rex Walheim, 45; Stanley Love, 42; and Hans Schlegel, 56, and Leopold Eyharts, 50, both of the European Space Agency. Eyharts will remain aboard the station, replacing Daniel Tani, 46, who will return to Earth aboard Atlantis.

SOURCE: NASA