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Space shuttle Atlantis to launch with Columbus lab

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"The missions that we've had up to this point have focused on building the backbone of the international space station and providing the power" and other capabilities the station needs to run all the labs and support up to six astronauts, says Mike Sarafin, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's lead flight director for Atlantis's 12-day trip.

While the station focuses on research, it also represents a lab of a different sort, notes Joanne Gabrynowicz, director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the University of Mississippi in University, Miss. "We tend to focus on engineering and science" in talking about the space station's value, she says. "But at the same time, this is a test bed for law and policy" governing international space exploration.

At best, the legal framework governing the ISS project could serve as a springboard for future agreements on projects that could include manned lunar exploration. At the least, it gives spacefaring nations valuable experience in figuring out the division of rights and responsibilities when running joint programs.

Each country registers the hardware it contributes under its flag with the United Nations. So moving from a US module to a Japanese or European module means moving from one country to another. The ISS agreements cover the bases – who controls what (the US gets access to half the Columbus module), intellectual property rights such as patents for discoveries made with commercial experiments, criminal jurisdiction, and liability issues.

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