Astronauts from the space shuttle Atlantis on Saturday completed the delicate, painstaking task of lifting a $1.4 billion laboratory module from the shuttle and mounting it on the International Space Station.
The job was a nail-biter and required two astronauts to work outside the spacecraft. Floating in the vacuum of space some 230 miles (370 km) above Earth, they gave directions to a third astronaut, Marsha Ivins, working blind as she maneuvered the lab with the shuttle's robotic arm from the spacecraft's payload bay.
A mishap occurred when spacewalker Robert Curbeam was sprayed with ammonia while connecting a coolant line between the lab and space station. Curbeam was protected by his spacesuit and the flow was quickly staunched, NASA said. Mission Control ordered a thorough decontamination of his suit before Curbeam returned to the shuttle.
The Destiny lab is the single most expensive component of the space station, whose ultimate purpose is scientific research. NASA could not afford to build a backup, so the success of this mission was critical to the completion of the $95 billion orbiting outpost, targeted for 2006.
Before Destiny could be hoisted into place on Saturday, Ivins had to use the 50-foot (15-metre) arm to remove a docking port from the end of the Unity module, where Destiny would be permanently berthed.
"PLEASE RELEASE ME"
To lighten the mood, shuttle commander Ken Cockrell played the country and western standard "Please Release Me" before his crew unlatched the port.
When Mission Control suggested Cockrell might have a future as a disc jockey, he replied: "That's if you let us come back. Let's see if we can get this job done first."
The International Space Station is a joint project of the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada.
Since the first space-station module was launched from Russia in 1998, work has focused on making the complex livable, with air, water, climate controls and supplies. Destiny's arrival is the fist step in building up the station's scientific capabilities. A crew has been aboard the station since last November.
On Saturday, Ivins was aided throughout the operation by spacewalkers Curbeam and Tom Jones, who became her eyes during much of the work. Her view from the shuttle's crew cabin was blocked most of the time, and video feeds were not always helpful.
"I've got essentially worthless cameras, worthless views," she said as she prepared to lift Destiny from the berth where it rode to space on Wednesday.
"You've got plenty of clearance. If you come straight out you're clear," Curbeam said.
In fact, Ivins had just about two inches of clearance. Destiny, a silvery cylinder 28 feet (8.5 metres) long and 14 feet (4.6 metres) wide, was a tight fit in the cargo bay.
Ivins closed the final inches (cm) between the lab and the station shortly before 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) as the shuttle and space station passed over Australia.
With the lab in place, Curbeam and Jones, both of them on their first spacewalk, began a scramble to connect power, data and utility lines linking Destiny to the station.
Some systems need to be activated right away so that the lab's interior, where some vital computers are located, does not freeze or overheat.
AMMONIA SPRAYS CURBEAM
It was while connecting a coolant line that ammonia unexpectedly began to spray Curbeam. The liquid froze into tiny crystals as soon as it came out, swarming around him like fireflies.
"There is definitely ammonia coming out. There are ice crystals everywhere," Curbeam said.
NASA wanted to be sure the pungent irritant did not make its way into shuttle's crew compartment, where it would float freely and could get into astronauts' eyes.
Jones used a special brush to clean Curbeam's suit. After that, NASA ordered Curbeam to "bake" himself in direct sunlight to evaporate any crystals.
It will be several years before the Destiny lab is fully utilized. A number of refrigerator-sized science stations were too heavy for this launch and will arrive on future missions. But NASA hopes to have about 30 ongoing studies under way in a year.
Work was to begin immediately on bringing Destiny's systems online. The Atlantis crew will spend Sunday with the Expedition One crew of Bill Shepherd, the American commander, and his Russian crew mates, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalyov. Then Jones and Curbeam will make two more spacewalks to complete the connections between Destiny and the older station modules.