Atlantis shoots into space on key mission for Europe

( AFP ) - Shuttle Atlantis soared into orbit after a two-month delay on a mission to the International Space Station that will set a milestone for Europe's presence in space.

"I'd like to wish you a successful mission and safe return," launch director Doug Lyons told the seven astronauts Thursday after Atlantis blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east coast at 12:45 pm (1945 GMT).

Atlantis, on its 11-day flight, is now chasing the International Space Station some 350 kilometers (217 miles) above Earth and is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Saturday.

The shuttle, whose crew includes a French and a German astronaut, is bringing to the station Europe's 10-ton Columbus laboratory, the first ISS addition not made in America or Russia.

With room inside for three people and operated by ground staff at a control center near Munich, Germany, Columbus will enable the European Space Agency (ESA) to conduct experiments related to biotechnology, medicine, materials and liquids.

The lab cost some 1.3 billion euros (two billion dollars), paid mostly by Germany, Italy and France.

"It's a great day for ESA," its director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain told reporters after the launch. "From now on, ESA is a visible and concrete partner of the International Space Station."

National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Michael Griffin said: "No launch can be any more momentous that the launch of Columbus, which brings to the space station truly international capabilities and participation."

"It shows visibly and in actuality that this is a real partnership among nations and societies to bring together a capability greater than anyone nation could bring by itself."

The main task for the Atlantis mission is to use the ISS's robot arm to transfer Columbus out of the shuttle's payload bay and attach it to the space station.

Three spacewalks are scheduled during the mission, which is seen as a major step forward for European ambitions in space.

The Atlantis crew includes astronauts Leopold Eyharts of France and Hans Schlegel of Germany. Currently US and Russian astronauts are aboard the space station.

Schlegel will conduct two spacewalks during the flight to connect power and fluid lines between Columbus and the ISS.

Eyharts will begin Europe's second longest stay on the space station by replacing US astronaut Dan Tani. The German astronaut of ESA, Thomas Reiter, stayed six months in the station in 2006.

Atlantis was originally scheduled for blastoff on December 6 as part of the tight schedule of shuttle flights to complete ISS construction by 2010, when the three-craft US shuttle fleet is to be retired.

But malfunctioning circuits in the fuel gauges of the spacecraft's liquid hydrogen tank forced a two-month delay until the problem was fixed.

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