Atlantis Blasts Off With Science Lab Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off Wednesday with the most expensive and pivotal piece of the international space station: a $1. 4 billion science laboratory. Atlantis and its crew of five soared into a clear sky at 6: 00 p. m. , with a rising full moon in the background and the setting sun turning the exhaust trail a beautiful gold and peach. The plume cast a rainbow-like shadow that seemed to stretch all the way to the moon.
The future of the space station, Alpha, is riding on the 11-day mission, three weeks late because of the need to inspect wiring on the shuttle's boosters. NASA's Destiny laboratory is the first of at least three research modules planned for the station. It is so expensive that the space agency could not afford to build a backup. If the lab is damaged or destroyed in flight, the space station will be set back for years.
At the moment of Atlantis' liftoff, the space station and its three residents were soaring more than 220 miles above the North Atlantic just east of Newfoundland. Atlantis should catch up on Friday. Until the very last hour, NASA feared rain and clouds at the overseas emergency landing strips might force a delay. But the weather in Spain and Morocco improved, clearing the way for the flight. A last-minute problem with a circuit board also went away. The Destiny laboratory - 28 feet long, and more than 30, 000 pounds - is made up of 415, 000 parts and 26 miles of wiring.
It is loaded with 13 computers, with one more to be added on the next shuttle visit. Without Destiny, astronauts and cosmonauts cannot do any major science work aboard the space station. No experiments are flying aboard the lab because the shuttle cannot handle the additional weight; the first one is due to arrive in March. Destiny and its computers will enable NASA's Mission Control to take over control of th space station from the Russians. Before Atlantis' astronauts can install Destiny, they will have to link up with the space station, move a docking port into position and then carefully lift the lab out of its tight berth in the shuttle payload bay. Destiny eventually will be the scene of round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week, month-after-month orbital research, something NASA hasn't done since Skylab in the 1970 s.
The experiments will involve fluids, metals, semiconductors, flames, plants and, perhaps most important, the human body. NASA wants to learn more about the effects of radiation and weightlessness on the body before it sends astronauts to Mars. Destiny will probably not be operating fully until 2006, given all the other space station construction still to be done.