CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Nov 10 (Reuters) NASA moved space shuttle Atlantis to its seaside launch pad today ahead of a planned early December mission to get Europe's first permanent space laboratory into orbit.
Riding on top of a 3,000-ton Apollo-era crawler transporter, Atlantis left the Kennedy Space Center's massive assembly building before dawn. The 3.8-mile (6 km) trek took about five hours.
For a change, NASA has time to spare in its campaign to prepare the shuttle for the three-day launch countdow beginning on Dec 3.
Whether the International Space Station will be ready for Atlantis' arrival is another question.
Station commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineers Yuri Malenchenko and Dan Tani have to relocate and outfit the newly arrived vestibule that will anchor Europe's Columbus laboratory and reinstall the shuttle's docking port.
On Friday, Whitson and Malenchenko completed the first of three planned spacewalks needed before the new module, named Harmony, can be moved by the station's robotic crane. Harmony was delivered by the shuttle Discovery crew, which returned to Earth on Wednesday after a 15-day mission.
''I'm taking it one day at a time,'' flight director Derek Hassmann told reporters after the spacewalk, which he called ''a huge step'' toward launching Atlantis at the opening of its eight-day launch window on Dec. 6.
Already waiting at the launch pad for Atlantis was Columbus, Europe's primary contribution to th 100 billion dollars, 16-nation space station project. The lab is scheduled to be loaded into the shuttle's cargo bay tomorrow.
Atlantis' seven-man crew, which includes European astronauts Hans Schlegel of Germany and Leopold Eyharts of France, is scheduled to arrive in Florida next weekend for a launch dress rehearsal.
Eyharts will remain aboard the space station for an abbreviated two-month mission, replacing Tani, who arrived with the shuttle Discovery crew on Oct 25.
REUTERS PJ YA KP2228