New Russian-U.S. crew sets off for international space station

Thursday, October 14th 2004, 2:25 pm
By: News On 6

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) _ A new Russian-U.S. crew headed to the international space station Thursday, surging into orbit aboard a Soyuz spacecraft none of the three astronauts has piloted before.

The Soyuz have been the only manned vehicles able to reach the orbiting research lab since the U.S. space shuttle fleet was grounded 20 months ago after the Columbia burned up on re-entry.

Russians Salizhan Sharipov and Yuri Shargin and American Leroy Chiao were flying their first mission in a Soyuz spacecraft _ a rare rupture with a tradition of having at least one crewman with previous experience in piloting the capsule.

Chiao and Sharipov both have flown U.S. space shuttles, while Shargin is a space rookie.

The Soyuz TMA-5 spacecraft lifted off as scheduled from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the bleak steppes of Kazakhstan at 7:06 a.m. Moscow time and entered orbit less than 10 minutes later.

The spaceship is to dock with the station at 8:17 a.m. Saturday.

Since 1977, Soviet and Russian space crews have included a cosmonaut with previous pilot experience to ensure a smooth ride. The sole exception had been an all-rookie crew launched in 1994 until Thursday's launch.

Three Soyuz rookies had to be used again because several veteran cosmonauts have resigned in recent years and the space agency hasn't had enough seats on recent Soyuz missions to train their replacements.

Russian space officials have played down the lack of Soyuz experience.

``It's true it's their first time flying the Soyuz, but I don't see anything scary in that,'' Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov said at the control center outside Moscow. ``What's hardest is not what ship you're surrounded by but the surrounding, aggressive factors of space, and two of the crew members are already familiar with that.''

NASA deputy administrator Fred Gregory, who came to Baikonur, said the launch actually underlined the first-time crew's competence in adapting.

``The countries have some excellent astronauts and cosmonauts, and when they are allowed to fly on the Soyuzes or the space shuttle these folks have the ability to adapt very quickly to that environment,'' he said. ``Both countries have a great desire to maintain our presence in space and to do even bolder things.''

Sharipov and Chiao ``will work really well together,``said U.S. astronaut Michael Foale in Baikonur. Foale returned in April after six months on the International Space Station.

Soyuz spacecraft are guided by autopilot on their approach to the station and during the docking, but the crew is trained to operate it manually in case of computer failure.

Gregory said the United States was looking for at ``at least one more'' station crew rotation in a Soyuz flight, tentatively set for April. He said NASA hopes to conduct its first post-Columbia shuttle flight around May.

Russian millionaire businessman Sergei Polonsky, who said he was ready to pay some $20 million, was initially scheduled to join the crew. Polonsky was eventually jettisoned after officials said he was too tall for the tiny capsule.

Polonsky was replaced by Shargin, a Russian military officer who is to return to Earth in 10 days with the station's current crew, Russian Gennady Padalka and American Mike Fincke, who are ending a six-month mission.

The mission's launch was delayed twice _ first after the accidental detonation of an explosive bolt used to separate the ship's various components, and after a tank with hydrogen peroxide burst.

Yuri Semyonov, the head of the RKK Energia company, which built the Soyuz, said neither glitch could affect flight safety.

During the six-month mission, the new crew will do experiments to research new AIDS vaccines, study plant growth and go on at least two space walks.

A crucial task will be fixing a broken generator that makes oxygen from waste water to supplement oxygen delivered by cargo ships. Previous repair efforts have failed.