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3-Man Crew Heads for Space Station

Russia provides the ride since NASA's program remains grounded after the Columbia disaster.

October 19, 2003|From Associated Press

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — A Russian rocket blasted off Saturday carrying a three-man replacement crew bound for the International Space Station, standing in for the U.S. shuttle program that remains grounded in wake of the Columbia disaster.

The crew consists of an American, a Russian and a Spaniard, marking the second time a Soyuz capsule has carried a U.S. astronaut to the space station since the Columbia disintegrated in February on its way back to Earth.

Russians and Americans burst into applause as the Soyuz-FG rocket blasted off on schedule from the once-secret Baikonur cosmodrome.

"It is huge -- it is testament to our partnership and how deep it really is," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said at the launch pad deep within the stark Kazakh steppe.

The launch came three days after China became the third nation to launch a manned spacecraft, joining Russia and the United States.

But while the Chinese launch was a symbol of national pride, Russia -- which, as the Soviet Union, pioneered space travel -- portrayed Saturday's flight as a demonstration of international cooperation.

The Soyuz spacecraft is taking the next U.S.-Russian replacement crew to the $60-billion space station, and giving a European Space Agency astronaut a ride into space.

"Our Russian partners stepped up at a time when we needed them the most," O'Keefe said. "They are shouldering a particularly heavy burden, and we are grateful for that."

NASA now depends on Russia to keep its astronauts flying. The Russian Soyuz, whose primary role was to serve as an emergency evacuation craft for the station, is now the only ship capable of carrying crews to and from the 16-nation space outpost.

"We are happy to have the opportunity to help our partners in the space station," said Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian space agency, known as Rosaviakosmos.

American Michael Foale, making his sixth trip into space, is commanding the flight, which also includes Spaniard Pedro Duque and flight engineer Alexander Kaleri.

The crew blasted off under clear blue skies, shooting across the Kazakh steppe at the start of their two-day trip to the space station. Docking is scheduled for Monday.

Foale will become the only American to serve aboard both the Mir space station and the International Space Station. Foale and Kaleri are due to replace American Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who have been in space since May.

Malenchenko, who left the planet a single man, will return as a husband after getting married aboard the space station during a live video hookup with his bride, who was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Duque, who will carry out a series of experiments in space, will return with Lu and Malenchenko in another Soyuz capsule in 10 days.

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