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Space Shuttle Atlantis Launches With European Research Lab

Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Thursday, carrying seven astronauts and a European built research module. The launch follows a two-month delay needed to fix a problem in the fuel gauge on the shuttle's external fuel tanks.

NASA weather officers had expected bad weather to possibly delay the mission, but the storm system did not affect the launch pad.

A NASA spokesman described the shuttle's trip into orbit.

"A smooth and uneventful ascent, Atlantis now in its preliminary orbit," he said. "The Columbus module is headed to the International Space Station."

Atlantis is scheduled to dock on Saturday with the International Space Station to deliver the $2 billion Columbus module built by the European Space Agency (ESA). Officials say Columbus will bring new capabilities to conduct research on the space station, such as experiments into the impact of space travel on humans and various materials. Columbus joins a U.S.-built research module already in space and a Japanese module that is set to be delivered later this year.

After the launch, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said the international cooperation has been important to expanding the space station.

"This is a real partnership among nations and among societies to bring together a capability greater than any one nation can bring by itself," he said.

NASA officials have scheduled at least five shuttle flights this year to meet a 2010 deadline to finish construction of the space station.