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Germany

The Second Coming of Columbus

Europe's Columbus Research Module will help scientists learn about the effects of space travel on humans and more. The findings could aid preparations for the first manned Mars voyage.

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Coming soon: Europe's zero-gravity laboratory

After Space Shuttle flights resume in 2005, one of the early payloads will be the European Space Agency's Columbus Research Module. The cylindrical module, which looks like an outsized soda can, is coming together in a large assembly hall at EADS Space Transportation, a subsidiary of Airbus maker EADS, in the northern German city of Bremen.

Columbus Laboratorium

EADS Space Transportation. Columbus laboratory and electrical test models in the integration hall in Bremen, Germany.

Columbus was originally scheduled to be launched this year, but the delay has given the project's scientists and engineers more time to conduct testing and to make the research laboratory more flexible to accommodate future experiments. Afterall, unlike an airplane, engineers don't have the luxury of doing test-flights on Columbus -- it has to work from day one.

The 4.5-meter (14.76 feet) cylindrical module, which weighs about 450 tons and has a floor space of 75 cubic meters, is packed with scientific experiments covering the fields of biology, biotechnology, human physiology, material science and fluid science.

Columbus Laboratorium

A full-sized model of the Columbus laboratory is open to visitors at EADS Space Transportation in Bremen

ESA gained some earlier experience in orbit with Spacelab, which flew on 22 missions in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle between 1983 and 1998, but Columbus marks the first time Europe will have an experiment facility all its own, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in space.

In rough terms, we will have 100 times more capability to do experiments than we ever had before," said Jörg Feustel-Büechl, ESA's director of manned spaceflight. Columbus can fit up to three astronauts working in the unit's zero-gravity conditions.

Astronauts as zero-gravity guinea pigs

Among the primary goals of Columbus is to study the effects of long-term space travel on the human body. In order to send astronauts to the moon or Mars for long periods, scientists and medical experts must first learns ways to counter the aging effects of space travel as well as prolonged exposure to increased radiation from the sun. The studies could also aid medical researchers treating illnesses on terra firma.

"We will study how the body behaves," Feustel-Büechl said. "The body ages more quickly in space and bone density diminishes, and that's an important phenomenon for studying the effects of osteoporosis. You also have a different distribution of the fluids of the blood and water in the body. You can study cardiovascular effects or the effects on the brains or eyes."

The European Physiology Modules, EPM

The European Physiology Modules (EPM) will be used to test the long-term health effects of space travel on astronauts.

Feustel-Büechl said that many health phenomena that occur on Earth are accelerated in space, which will help scientists to study them more easily and quickly than they could on our own planet. The same "Biolab" facility used to study humans can also be used for experiments on cells, tissue cultures, microorganisms, small plants and invertebrates.

Benefits for business

The ESA scientist said the laboratory would also be important for studying material science. In space, there is no convection, and astronauts in the Columbus module can "isolate physical phenomena in a much better way, understanding better, for example, how fluids behave with gases, how combustion works and how melting fluids behave -- not just for the textbooks, but also for practical applications in various disciplines and industries." In other words, the lessons learned in space could help companies back on Earth create new manufacturing techniques.

In addition to the research facilities inside Columbus, the module also has four outdoor platforms for experiments. "These will allow our astronaut scientists to look to the sky for astronomical observations or to look down to Earth for observation experiments," said Feustel-Büechl. "We can also conduct experiments with technology that needs to be exposed to space conditions."

An industrial Tower of Babel

Pre-integrated Columbus Assembly, PICA

A custom built Airbus A300-600ST Beluga was used to carry the Columbus' shell from Alenia Spazial in Turin, Italy, to EADS Space Transportation in Bremen.

The building of the complex research laboratory has been a major European cooperative effort. EADS Space Transportation is the prime contractor on the Columbus module, but the work has been shared by all of the ISS' European partners. Italian engineers at Alenia Spazial in Turin, Italy, designed and built the module structure and parts also came from partners in Holland, Belgium, France, Denmark and other European countries -- with several hundred workers involved in the project.

Günther Brandt, head of space station elements at EADS Space Transportation, was in charge of the gargantuan task of organizing the dozens of contractors working on the Columbus -- a tower of Babel of languages and engineering styles.

"The biggest challenge is to get all these companies in various countries under one umbrella and get them working towards one system," he explained. With different cultures and tongues, it can be difficult to find harmony. "It's often not easy to get this all straightened out and in line so that one product comes out of this," he said.

But when Columbus finally reaches the ISS after more than 15 years of planning in 2006, the scientists assume nothing will be lost in translation.