After four-year wait, Europe's Columbus docks at station

( dpa )- After four years' delay and last minute space- walk hitches, the Columbus laboratory docked onto the International Space Station on Monday, opening a new chapter for Europe in space flight.

" Columbus is now officially a part of the ISS," NASA officials said on the NASA TV transmission of the docking.

In a precision transfer that took about two hours, a robotic arm operated from inside the space station manoeuvred Columbus out of the cargo bay on the Atlantis shuttle and into its permanent place at the Harmony portal that was installed last year.

"Beautiful work," a ground control official in Houston, Texas, said. "The newest member has touched metal to metal."

French astronaut Leopold Eyharts will be the first to enter the Columbus module.

The 1.2-billion-dollar European Space Agency lab was built mostly by EADS-Astrium in Bremen, Germany, and was to have gone into operation in 2004. But the 2003 Columbia space disaster played havoc with the entire space station construction programme.

Columbus will expand the space station's scientific research capacity and represents Europe's largest contribution to the orbiting station.

Two spacewalkers, Rex Walheim and Stanley Love, prepared the way for the final Columbus docking earlier Monday by attaching a special "handle" to the laboratory that allowed the station's robotic arm to grab hold.

German astronaut Hans Schlegel was to have been on the first spacewalk, which had been slated for Sunday. But he was replaced by Love after he came down with a "health issue" that NASA officials did not explain, and the spacewalk was delayed by a day until Monday.

Schlegel is to participate in Wednesday's spacewalk, the second of the mission, officials said.

The overall mission has been extended by a day because of the delay, with return to Earth slated for February 19.

Walheim and Love spent 7 hours 44 minutes on the space walk, longer than had been planned. They had one more chore after finishing the Columbus project - removing a nitrogen tank assembly that is to be replaced on Wednesday. The assembly is part of the station's thermal control system.

On a third scheduled spacewalk, Walheim and Love are to transfer experiments to the exterior of Columbus and retrieve a gyroscope.

As the world's only heavy-lifting spacecraft in operation, the US shuttles are hurrying to finish space station construction so NASA can retire the decades-old transporters in 2010. By that time, construction is expected to have doubled the station's capacity to six astronauts.

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