Astronauts placed the crown jewel of Europe's contribution to the International Space Station into its permanent setting on Monday with the attachment of the Columbus science module.
On a seven-hour, 58-minute spacewalk, two astronauts and a robot arm guided the Columbus out of the cargo bay of the space shuttle Atlantis and affixed it to the station.
The astronauts, Colonel Rex Walheim of the Air Force and Stanley Love, labored outside the space complex for hours, preparing the module for removal from the cargo bay, before a crew mate, Leland Melvin, used the station's robot arm to pull it out.
Because of balky connectors and attachments, the excursion lasted almost 90 minutes longer than planned.
When the spacewalkers moved away, Melvin lifted the shiny 12,791km module up and out, and maneuvered the structure, which is 7m long and 4.5m in diameter, toward its permanent attachment point on the side of the station.
After it was positioned in place on the right side of the station's Harmony connecting module, the Columbus module was permanently pulled into place by a set of motorized bolts as the spacewalkers returned inside the station.
The US$2 billion Columbus module, which adds 74m3 of volume to the station and doubles its research ability, is the primary contribution to the project by the 17 countries of the European Space Agency. The module is to be operated by Europe from a new control center near Munich.
General Leopold Eyharts of the French air force, who arrived Saturday with the Atlantis and will stay aboard the station to activate the module, was exuberant as he announced its attachment.
"Houston and Munich, the European Columbus laboratory module is now part of the International Space Station," Eyharts said to applause at control centers on Earth.
Alan Thirkettle, the European program manager who had earlier called the Columbus the "cornerstone" of Europe's participation in human space flight, said at a later news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston that the final delivery of the laboratory after years of delay was overwhelming.
"It's a sight that everybody in Europe has been looking forward to for a long time," Thirkettle said.
The arduous and delicate work of moving and installing the module was partly orchestrated from the station by Hans Schlegel, an astronaut from Germany who was originally to have performed the spacewalk. Schlegel fell ill from an undisclosed problem as the Atlantis docked, leading to a one-day delay in the spacewalk and causing NASA to draft Love as a substitute for the task.
Although Schlegel appeared to have recovered from his problem, NASA officials have not said whether he will participate, as scheduled, in the second of the three planned spacewalks, scheduled for today.
Mission officials said the module would be opened from inside yesterday after tests like checks for air leaks. At that point, Eyharts is to enter the module to check its condition and begin weeks of work to activate it.
Additional work on the module's exterior is scheduled for the later spacewalks.