Russian Spacecraft on Way to Space Station
By MARA D. BELLABY, Associated Press Writer
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a Russian, an American and a Spaniard blasted off Saturday for the International Space Station from the Russian space program's cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The launch came three days after China became the world's third spacefaring nation, joining the ranks of the former Soviet Union and the United States. It was the second manned space launch from Baikonur since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February, putting the U.S. space program on hold.
The Soyuz-FG rocket rose flawlessly into clear skies over the barren Central Asian steppes, hurling its human cargo into space at speeds of 19,685 feet per second.
The spacecraft entered orbit about nine minutes after liftoff and applause broke out at Russian mission control outside Moscow.
The three-man crew — U.S. astronaut Michael Foale, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri and Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque — are to reach the space station after a two-day trip.
The crew took off from the same launch pad that rocketed Yuri Gagarin into the history books into 1961 as the first man to go into orbit.
Since the Columbia disaster, the U.S. space agency has been dependent on the Russians to keep its astronaut corps flying. The European Space Agency, which lacks its own means to launch astronauts, also regularly buys seats on the non-reusable Russian spacecraft.
The new space station responsibilities have put a strain on the Russian space program's budget but also have boosted the prestige of an agency that was derided a few years ago for becoming a provider of expensive junkets for rich space tourists.
"I want to convey our thanks for your support during this period when the shuttle cannot fly," Charlie Precourt, the NASA deputy manager responsible for the space station, told a meeting of Russia's most senior space officials on Friday.
American astronaut Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who have been in space since April, will show their replacements, Foale and Kaleri, around the station before heading home on Oct. 28 with Duque aboard another Soyuz that is already docked at the station.
Duque, whose first foray into space was aboard the U.S. shuttle Discovery in 1998 with former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, plans to spend his eight days on the floating space lab carrying out of a series of experiments.
Duque will return to Earth in 10 days with Lu and Malenchenko on another Soyuz capsule that is already docked at the outpost.
While the Soyuz has easily stepped in as the "ferry" to the international space station, the shuttle's absence is starting to cause some problems. The Russians had planned to launch a Progress cargo vessel — full of food, water and other supplies — this fall, but that has been postponed. Russia has scrambled to prepare more Progress ships to meet the supply demands typically fulfilled by the much larger shuttle.
Nikolai Zelenshchikov, deputy director of the RKK Energiya space complex which builds the spacecraft, on Friday blamed a lack of promised funding from the state. He said he hoped it would fly by early next year.
Both Zelenshchiikov and NASA spokesman Rob Navias insisted, however, that a delay would not leave the station's new inhabitants lacking for anything. "They won't be up there missing any creature comforts," Navias said.
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