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ASTRONAUTS PREPARE TO REEL OUT SATELLITE

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Columbia's astronauts spent their first day in space Friday getting ready for the tricky and dangerous task of releasing a half-ton satellite on a 12.8-mile leash.

The $443 million tethered satellite, a U.S.-Italian project, is making its second space voyage. The first, in 1992, was a flop."We made this step before," Italian program manager Carlo Bonifazi said Thursday after his satellite reached orbit. "We are now waiting for second step."

That comes Saturday, when astronauts attempt to reel out the satellite on a slender cord resembling a boot lace and try to generate electricity as the assembly sweeps through Earth's magnetic field at 17,500 mph.

The international group of four Americans, two Italians and one Swiss checked the satellite's systems and activated a few secondary experiments early Friday.

The astronauts blasted off on schedule Thursday and had a brief scare only seconds into the flight as a cockpit gauge indicated low thrust in one of three main engines. It was determined within seconds to be a faulty reading.

Later, Mission Control told the crew that the flight controller watching the main engines was "trying to get his heart collected again."

"Tell him to join the club," replied shuttle pilot Scott Horowitz.