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Russia: Soyuz Spacecraft To Blast Off On Historic Mission To International Space Station

On 26 April, a Soyuz spacecraft will blast off on a historic mission from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. A Russian cosmonaut and a U.S. astronaut will be the first to fly to the International Space Station since the Columbia space shuttle disaster on 1 February, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 24 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The launch of "Expedition 7," a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 26 April, will mark a number of firsts.

Russian cosmonaut Yurii Malenchenko and U.S. astronaut Edward Lu will be the first crew to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry over the southern United States on 1 February. All seven crew members on board were killed.

The U.S. space agency NASA suspended all planned shuttle flights to the ISS immediately after that disaster. While the U.S. shuttle fleet remains grounded pending the outcome of an investigation into the crash, the Soyuz is the only alternative to transport crews to and from the ISS.

The launch will mark the first time in the history of Russian space flight that a U.S. astronaut will act as flight engineer.

Robert Mirelson, a NASA spokesman in Washington, said: "This is a historic launch. We only have launched on the Soviet Soyuz one other time before and that was with 'Expedition 1.' The loss of the Columbia space shuttle and the grounding of the shuttle fleet has necessitated using the Soyuz craft to do crew exchange. This will also be the first time we are bringing back an American crew from the space station to a hard landing in Kazakhstan on a Soyuz craft. The three astronauts on board the ISS -- the two Americans and the one Russian -- will return for the first time together on a Soyuz. So this is a historic mission as we launch 'Expedition 7' to replace 'Expedition 6' on the International Space Station."

Christian Feichtinger is a permanent representative of the European Space Agency in Russia. He also noted that previous crew exchanges at the ISS have only involved the space shuttle and remarked on one other important point about the launch.

"The second significance I see is the fact that we will bring down three astronauts and bring up two astronauts. That means we will reduce the number of permanent crew on board, and that is of course done in order to save consumables and resources on the station in order to make it possible to maintain the main load of the station in the absence of the shuttle."

Malenchenko and Lu arrived at the Baikonur cosmodrome on 20 April to complete training and to inspect the Soyuz spacecraft. Because of security reasons, the two arrived on separate planes from Moscow. A backup crew consisting of Russian Aleksander Kalery and American Michael Foale arrived later the same day.

Speaking shortly after his arrival at Baikonur, U.S. astronaut Lu said, "We are happy that we're moving on [past the shuttle disaster] because of the hard work of everybody here and in Houston and in Moscow, actually throughout the world. So we are happy that we're moving on, but we are still thinking about the circumstances that caused this and our friends that perished on Columbia."

Russian cosmonaut Malenchenko also expressed optimism over the outcome of the trip. "We will have training with [the current team on the ISS], and we will share with them the experience we received while training on the ground, and I think everyone will be ready. [Cosmonaut and current ISS crew member] Kolya Budarin has experience in flying and landing on Soyuz, so I am sure everything will be OK," Malenchenko said.

The two-man "Expedition 7" crew will spend six months on the space station, conducting a variety of experiments. The three members of the "Expedition 6" crew -- who arrived at the ISS in November -- will return to Earth in May. They were originally scheduled to stay aboard the ISS for only four months, but their mission was extended following the Columbia disaster.

The U.S. decision to ground its shuttle program has created an opportunity for Russia to increase launches from Baikonur, according to Meirbek Moldabekov, deputy head of the Kazakh National Aerospace Agency. Moscow has earmarked an additional $38 million for its space program. A two-person crew was chosen for "Expedition 7" to save money.

Russia plans nearly 20 launches this year from Baikonur, including two Proton-K rockets, one today that is carrying a military satellite and a second that will place a U.S. commercial satellite into orbit on 28 April.

In 1999, Russia agreed to suspend the launch of Proton rockets from Baikonur after two crashed shortly after blastoff, dispersing what Kazakh ecologists claimed was highly toxic fuel over a wide area.

Moldabekov told RFE/RL that Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to eventually stop launches of Proton rockets from Baikonur. "Our president got an agreement with the Russian president about replacing Proton with another type of spacecraft which would be more friendly to the environment, and the governments of Kazakhstan and Russia are working out a project on this matter."

The increase in the number of launches scheduled at Baikonur comes as the future of Russia's second cosmodrome, at Plesetsk in Arkhangelsk Oblast, is unclear.

Last week, Russian environmental officials issued an order to suspend as of 1 June all launches of Rokot booster rockets from the Plesetsk cosmodrome, since they violate federal environmental law. "Kommersant" reported that the launch pads lack purification systems for sewage and other waste. The move reportedly endangers two launches that were expected to yield some $30 million for Russia's struggling space industry.

In April 2002, the Russian space agency announced that it was planning to transfer launches of military satellites from Baikonur to Plesetsk over the next eight to 10 years. Baikonur would then be used exclusively for launching civilian spacecraft and commercial satellites.

In 1994, Russia and Kazakhstan signed a long-term agreement on the lease of Baikonur, under which Russia pays Kazakhstan $115 million a year for the use of the facility.