Russian Soyuz spacecraft set to take off for orbiting station

Ship will fill in for NASA due to Columbia disaster

April 25, 2003|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - When a Russian Soyuz spacecraft blasts off from Kazakstan late tonight, it will be taking an American astronaut, a Russian cosmonaut and the fortunes of the international space station with it.

Shortly before midnight EDT, Edward Lu and Yuri Malenchenko will take a nine-minute ride from the Baikonur Cosmodrome into orbit, on their way to a rendezvous with the station early Monday morning.

If everything goes as planned, Lu and Malenchenko will spend the next six months together, more than 200 miles above the Earth, watching every drop of water they use and every morsel they consume.

With the space shuttle fleet grounded after the loss of the shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, the station now depends on Russia's ability to carry people and supplies to the orbiting outpost.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Russia and the 14 international partners involved with the station agreed in late February to shrink the crew from three to two to improve the odds that the station would not have to be abandoned.

That means on May 3, the three men who have lived at the station since November, Americans Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Russian Nikolai Budarin, will climb into the empty Soyuz docked there and return home.

A smaller crew also means that even minor problems on board the station - be it an electrical glitch, an illness, or something else - could threaten the two-and-a-half-year streak of having people on the station. So could any problem with the Soyuz, which also serves as a lifeboat for the astronauts.

Despite the daunting situation, NASA officials are optimistic.

"It is not without its challenges, but we are still in a good posture for keeping the station crewed," said Michael Kostelnik, who oversees the shuttle and station programs and is in Baikonur for the launch.

At a news conference last week in Russia, Lu said the Columbia accident would be on his mind. But so will the need to fulfill the dream of a permanent outpost in space.

"This doesn't mean we should stop what we're doing," Lu said.

Lu and Malenchenko, who have worked together before, expected to take a shuttle to the station. Instead, they are going in a cramped capsule that blasts into space atop a rocket and plummets back to earth with a parachute and booster rockets to slow it down.

The three-stage Soyuz, a variation of the R-7 missile launcher designed by the Soviets in the 1950s, is a no-frills way to get into space.

But the craft has also been safe and reliable. Every manned mission ever flown by the Russians has been aboard some version of the booster.

Gwyneth K. Shaw writes for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.