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Germany

Astronauts Get Columbus Up and Running Faster Than Expected

The crew aboard the International Space Station is completing the installation of the Columbus space laboratory faster than planned, officials said. The ground crew is working to find more tasks for the astronauts.

The Columbus module is seen at the end of the robotic arm after being taken out of the payload bay of the space shuttle Atlantis, on Feb. 11

The Columbus module may be activated ahead of schedule

"The crew is extremely quick," Markus Bauer, agency spokesman, said late Saturday, Feb. 16, at the German Space Agency mission control center in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich.

A series of experiment and systems equipment on the European-built space lab have been powered up ahead of schedule, he said, adding, "That is good. We'll be able to activate Columbus more quickly."

The speed of the installation is keeping busy the scientists and engineers in Oberpfaffenhofen, which is directing the experiments and systems on board the orbiting lab.

Astronauts ahead of schedule

USA astronaut Rex Walheim and European Space Agency space walker Hans Schlegel from Germany work on the P1 Truss replacing the used nitrogen tank on the International Space Station

Schlegel, left, helped replace a used nitrogen tank on the ISS

"We have to keep up and give the astronauts new tasks to carry out," Bauer said.

Work has proceeded so quickly that some jobs that weren't scheduled to be taken on until the Atlantis space shuttle undocks from the space station have already been completed, he said.

The main task of Atlantis mission, which began with the shuttle's liftoff Feb. 7, was to carry and install Columbus on the space station in three spacewalks, the last of which was completed Friday.

Though he missed his first opportunity for a spacewalk due to illness, German astronaut Hans Schlegel was healthy and didn't let a second opportunity slip past. He called the spacewalk the most exciting moment in his life.

Hardest part is going back

Picture of the Earth taken from space

Schlegel said the view of Earth was hard to beat

"The hardest part was coming back inside at the end," he said in a press conference broadcast from space to Cologne, Paris and Houston on Saturday. "It's just so wonderful to enjoy the view of the Earth that you don't want to go back."

Atlantis and its seven-member crew are to undock from the station Monday, leaving the three-member space station crew behind. A landing back on Earth is scheduled for Wednesday.

The addition of the lab to the station was delayed four years by the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The shuttle program was grounded until the US space agency could carry out an investigation and implement new safety measures.

During its 10-year life span, Columbus is to host thousands of experiments in life and materials science, fluid physics and other disciplines.

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