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This shuttle particularly important for Europe
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2008
CAPE CANAVERAL - There's a 70 percent chance that the weather will force NASA to delay today's planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.
But if it does blast off, 2:45 p.m. will be an emotional moment for Alan Thirkettle, a top official in the European Space Agency.
Thirkettle, an engineer, is the type of person who finds sublime beauty in the shape and design of an airplane wing, who believes the Supersonic Concorde jet is "the most beautiful engineering feat that mankind has ever done."
Today he hopes to see another engineering feat: Atlantis will be carrying a 23-foot-long, Italian-built, soup can-shaped laboratory named Columbus.
American and European astronauts will attach Columbus to the international space station. Thirkettle, 64, talked about his hopes for this new space lab.
Is this getting a lot of publicity in Europe?
In Germany and Italy in particular there's a lot of publicity about it. ... I suspect that excitement will grow when they see (French astronaut) Leopold Eyharts going through the hatch and being the first human inside (the lab). So yes, it's a big deal for us.
Do you think that will be the moment that captures the most attention?
It'll be another of the moments ... (a couple) days after Leo first enters, he and the commander of the shuttle and the commander of the station (and German astronaut Hans Schlegel) will be inside there and they'll be having a (video conference) with Angela Merkel, who is the chancellor of Germany. And that'll be live on TV in Germany and that's going to be a mega-deal. ... We probably won't be too shy to tell people that this Columbus module built in Europe is being attached to this Node 2 which was also built in Europe.
Are there going to be some butterflies in your stomach?
Of course, it's a business that's on the cutting edge. We do everything possible to make sure that it's as safe as we can. But it's a business where things can go wrong, it has gone wrong. There's no point in denying it. The people who fly in it sign up for that, they understand that, their families understand that. ... but, yeah, you've got this little thing in the bottom of your stomach that says keep going, keep going, keep going, get up...
What is the most important science that you think would come out of this laboratory?
That's absolutely impossible to say. The very nature of research is that you go in a particular direction but you find the solution somewhere else. ... There will be things coming out of the medical area, they'll be things coming out of the pharmaceutical area, there will be things coming out of the materials area, there will be things coming out of fundamental research, fundamental physics.
How would you sum up this mission?
It's the opportunity to start a new future. It's the chance for astronauts to get up there and do some really world-class research that's going to help out mankind.