Shuttle Atlantis chased the international space station in orbit Friday as its crew prepared for a laser inspection of their ship's wings.
After two months of technical delays, the shuttle was scheduled to reach the station Saturday with a special delivery: Europe's two-billion-U.S.-dollar Columbus lab.
But first the crew of seven astronauts had to determine whether the shuttle was damaged by at least three pieces of foam or other debris that came off the fuel tank two minutes after Thursday's liftoff.
There was no evidence that the debris hit Atlantis. But the astronauts planned to spend much of Friday using a laser-tipped inspection pole to examine the ship's vulnerable wings and nose.
The inspection has been standard procedure ever since a hole in the wing brought down Columbia in 2003, the result of a strike by a slab of fuel tank foam.
Book of Love
The astronauts awoke Friday to the song "Book of Love" by Peter Gabriel, a dedication to French crewmember Air Force Gen. Léopold Eyharts from his wife and family.
Eyharts greeted his loved ones in English and French, saying, "I know it has been a somehow hard day for them and I want to thank them."
Eyharts will move into the space station for a little more than a month, replacing NASA astronaut Daniel Tani. Eyharts plans to help continue setting up and activating the Columbus module, Europe's primary contribution to the space station.
Twenty-three years in the making, Columbus has endured space station redesigns and slowdowns, as well as a number of shuttle postponements and two shuttle accidents. Atlantis was supposed to deliver Columbus in December, but fuel gauge trouble prevented the launch.
Station commander Peggy Whitson said Columbus' arrival will be a great present as she celebrates her 48th birthday on Saturday.
"I'm really looking forward to it," Whitson told CBS' The Early Show.
Atlantis' commander, Stephen Frick and his crew will begin installing Columbus on Sunday. Three spacewalks are planned during the flight, scheduled to last 11 or—more likely—12 days.
Columbus will join the U.S. lab, Destiny, which was launched aboard Atlantis exactly seven years ago. The Japanese lab Kibo—which means " Hope" in Japanese—is so big it will take three shuttle trips to get everything up, beginning in March.
Thursday's launch kept NASA on track for six shuttle flights this year. The space agency faces a 2010 deadline for finishing the station and retiring the shuttles.
That equates to four or five shuttle flights a year between now and then, something NASA Administrator Michael Griffin considers achievable.
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