By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida
Europe is on the cusp of a renaissance in space, with its first permanently tended orbital laboratory, a cargo transporter and other gear about to make their debuts.
The Italian connecting node Harmony will fly next week
After more than a decade of preparation, 45 tonnes of European hardware is heading into space over the next four months, including the crown jewel of European space efforts, the Columbus laboratory, which is to become part of the International Space Station (ISS).
Europe's direct participation in the station has taken much longer than expected and the costs have been dear.
The European Space Agency (Esa) has so far spent five billion euros (£3.5bn; $7bn) on the programme since 1995, says the Esa station programme manager Alan Thirkettle.
The money has employed more than 5,000 people and provided contracts for more than 50 companies, many of which have spun off their space station technology into commercial products and services.
"It's a lot of money, but when you put it into context, it's not so much," Thirkettle said.
Costs escalated due to two lengthy delays in station construction.
The first hiatus between 1996 and 2000 was due to Russian delays in launching the station's main control and habitation module, Zvezda.
The second delay stemmed from the 2003 shuttle Columbia accident, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts. The US space agency (Nasa) spent 3.5 years and more than $1bn fixing the shuttle for the sole purpose of finishing space station construction.
Wait almost over
Next week, astronauts aboard shuttle Discovery, including Italy's Paolo Nespoli, are scheduled to install a vestibule to the station to anchor Europe's Columbus laboratory as well as Japan's Kibo complex.
"Once Columbus is up there, we're part-owner of the station and that's very important," said Thirkettle, who has been at the Kennedy Space Center to oversee launch preparations.
Esa astronauts like Paolo Nespoli have major roles to play
Esa's involvement in the programme, which is led by Nasa and the Russian space agency Roskosmos, has multiple goals, Thirkettle said, not the least of which is inspiring youths to pursue scientific and technical careers.
"We're not going to develop as a continent with financial services and tourism," he said.
Europe is also hoping for some direct spin-offs from its investments in space in terms of medical breakthroughs, new technologies, and sharper insights into chemistry, fluid physics, biology and material sciences.
Europe's space research programme is diverse, but focused. Health issues that affect astronauts such as osteoporosis have widespread implications for the Earth-bound as well, said Thirkettle.
Columbus is in final preparation and follows in December
Other experiments will delve into the creation of new materials which, for example, can be used in the production of light-weight turbine blades for improved aircraft engine performance.
"After 10 years of working very hard on this programme, it's really a climax," said Thirkettle. "We will have the opportunity at last to perform the world-class science that Columbus was designed to do."
It is not just European machinery that is heading into orbit. European astronauts are slated for a series of long-duration missions on the station, beginning with France's Leopold Eyharts, who will be launched on the shuttle that ferries Columbus to orbit, now scheduled for December.
SPACE STATION CARGO TRUCKS
Esa's ATV (L) will resupply the ISS with up to 7,500kg of cargo
Capacity is three times that of the Russian Progress craft (R)
Deliveries will include science equipment, food and clothing
Large tanks can transport vital air, water and fuel
ATV project's estimated cost is about 1.3bn euros (£0.9bn)
The first ship, called Jules Verne, is set to fly in January
"We are expecting Esa astronauts to fly on the station on a regular basis," said astronaut Thomas Reiter, who now heads space research and development for the German Aerospace Center.
Esa paid to jump-start its space station research programme by sending Reiter on a long-duration station mission last year. He previously flew on the Russian Mir space station.
"The collaboration that is happening in space is quite remarkable, despite some little problems here and there," Reiter said. "Europe as a whole can achieve quite a lot in technical areas, if there is the political will."