NEW space station commander, Frank Culbertson, feels space exploration is a vital task

Wednesday, August 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ The new commander of the international space station is busy getting to know the systems and procedures aboard the orbiting outpost he'll call home for the next four months.

But U.S. astronaut Frank Culbertson still found a moment to ponder the greater meaning of his time in space.

``We're on a stairway to the stars and this particular step may prove to be one of the most significant in human history, this international program of building this space station and being able to develop the technology that will allow us to go further,'' Culbertson said in a TV interview Tuesday.

Culbertson and two Russian cosmonauts are the third crew to occupy space station Alpha. They arrived this past weekend aboard space shuttle Discovery and moved into Alpha on Monday. They will come back to Earth in December.

Discovery will return the old crew members back to Earth next week. They have been aboard Alpha since March.

Ex-station commander Yuri Usachev said he was ready for his time aboard Alpha to end.

``After five months it's time to go home because we have a lot of people waiting for us, our family, our friends,'' Usachev said.

On Wednesday, both crews were to continue going over station operations. Also, Discovery astronauts were to check out tools and spacesuits to be used during a spacewalk Thursday.

On Tuesday, the astronauts aboard Alpha finished unloading an Italian cargo carrier named Leonardo ahead of schedule. They will now refill it with trash, dirty clothes and broken equipment for return to Earth.

Discovery's pilots also fired the shuttle thrusters and gave the attached space station a two-mile orbital lift.

Culbertson said the development of the space station could one day lead to the exploration of Mars and a return to the moon to set up a research station there.

``Some day hopefully we'll come up with some type of propulsion that will allow us to go much, much further,'' he said.