New space station crew moves into orbiting outpost

Wednesday, March 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ The international space station reached another milestone early Wednesday as its first replacement crew finished moving into its new home.

``The torch is passing from one crew to the next, as well as the phase of flight for the international space station where we go from construction to utilization,'' NASA flight director John Shannon said.

The new crew of space station Alpha expects challenges and hard work during its four-month stay on the orbiting outpost.

``We are very much looking forward to it. We're more like family than we are like a crew. We are just going to have the time of our lives,'' said Susan Helms, the last replacement crew member to move into the station.

Helms moved into Alpha early Wednesday. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev, who will be the new commander, and astronaut Jim Voss had settled in earlier. The three were brought up by space shuttle Discovery, which was launched last Thursday.

They are relieving station commander Bill Shepherd and his two Russian shipmates, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, who have spent more than four months aboard the station. They will return to Earth aboard Discovery on Tuesday.

NASA wanted Shepherd to have as much time as possible with Usachev before the shuttle undocks from Alpha late Saturday. Shepherd will remain station commander until hatches between Discovery and Alpha close just before the shuttle leaves.

Also Wednesday morning, Discovery commander James Wetherbee had to raise the shuttle-station complex into a higher orbit earlier than planned to avoid a viselike device that was lost early Sunday during the first of the mission's two spacewalks. NASA feared the 10- to 15-pound piece of space junk would pass about 200 feet below the station, too close for comfort.

Last month, another shuttle crew also had to steer the orbiting complex away from a piece of space junk.

Helms said the biggest challenges she expects for herself during her stay on Alpha will be the psychological ones involved with living in an isolated environment for months.

``However, I've been mentally preparing myself for that. I feel like that's not going to impact the work getting done,'' she said early Wednesday.

Besides delivering the new crew, Discovery brought up an Italian-made module named Leonardo filled with 5 tons of equipment and supplies. It was attached to the station early Monday.

Inside the space station, both crews have almost finished removing gear from the module. The equipment includes electronics, communications gear, emergency medical equipment and the work station for Alpha's robotic arm, scheduled to be delivered in April.

The first experiments for the Destiny lab also have been removed from Leonardo. They will study the effects of weightlessness on the human body.

``It's a wonderful place,'' Voss said of the $1.4 billion Destiny lab. ``We're going to enjoy working in there.''

The Leonardo module will be put back in the shuttle and returned to Earth, carrying back a load of trash.