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Astronauts install entryway on space station

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Two teams of astronauts installed a brand new entryway on the international space station Sunday, then swung open the hatch with a ceremonial flourish and floated inside.

Applause erupted in Mission Control as the commanders of the linked space shuttle Atlantis and space station Alpha cut a white paper ribbon stretching across the inner threshold of the $164 million air lock for spacewalks, named Quest.

To NASA's relief, the space station's robot arm worked well during its first construction job, exhibiting none of the problems that temporarily crippled it following its own installation three months ago and had delayed Atlantis' flight.

Space station astronaut Susan Helms used the 58-foot mechanical arm to lift the 6 1/2-ton air lock from Atlantis' cargo bay and attach it to the space station. Shuttle astronauts Michael Gernhardt and James Reilly II helped her line it up for a perfect fit.

Paul Hill, the lead flight director, was thrilled with Helms' crane-operating skills and the flawless performance of Canada's billion-dollar arm.

"We made history today," Hill said. "The international space station reached into the Atlantis payload bay using its own arm and pulled a cargo element out and installed it and voila! Station now has a brand new module."

It marked the end of a major phase of assembly for the 2 1/2-year-old space station and the start of a whole new spacewalking era.

Once oxygen and nitrogen tanks are attached to the air lock later this week, Americans living aboard the space station will be able to go out on spacewalks at any time wearing their own suits. And once Russian hoses and other gear arrive this fall, residents will be able to leave the air lock in Russian suits, too.

Until now, U.S. station occupants have had to rely on Russian spacewalking suits and a Russian exit. NASA's suits are incompatible with Russian station systems.

Gernhardt and Reilly spent six hours outside on the first of three spacewalks planned for this mission. They removed protective covers from the air lock, then waited at a safe distance while Helms hoisted the chamber.

As soon as the air lock was bolted in place, the spacewalkers hooked up its electrical supply.

The shiny aluminum air look, 18 feet long and 13 feet in diameter at the widest point, added a fifth room to the international space station, or a fifth and sixth if you count both of its compartments. It also increased the station's total mass to 130 tons.

If all goes well with a spacewalk planned for Tuesday night, staged from Atlantis, Gernhardt and Reilly will use the new air lock Thursday night.

NASA, meanwhile, has decided to bring back a U.S. space suit because of possible contamination from a leaky battery. The suit was carried up on Atlantis and was supposed to have been left on the space station for future use.

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NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov