Russian rocket prepared for Saturday launch
Friday, April 25, 2003
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- Russia on Thursday rolled out the spacecraft that will carry the next crew to the international space station, filling the gap left by the suspension of U.S. shuttle flights after the Columbia disaster.
The Soyuz TMA-2 capsule -- an updated version of the longest-serving manned spacecraft in the world -- was roped into service to ensure the orbiting outpost, some 250 miles above Earth, isn't abandoned.
Carrying Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and American astronaut Edward Lu, the spaceship is scheduled to blast off Saturday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Without the U.S. shuttles, the Soyuz and Russia's unmanned Progress cargo ship are the only links to the $60 billion international space station.
"Obviously, this mission is very important in terms of the survival of the international space station," said Sergei Gorbunov, chief spokesman for Rosaviakosmos, the Russian space agency.
For Russia's cash-strapped space industry, the international space station has important symbolic value: Without it, Russian rockets would primarily be used to lift commercial satellites into orbit.
Before the disaster, the shuttle ferried rotating crews to and from the station, while a Soyuz capsule was usually left at the outpost to serve as a "lifeboat" in case the crew needed to bail out quickly.
The shuttle disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
NASA spokesman Rob Navias, part of the U.S. delegation in Baikonur to watch the launch, said both Russian and U.S. experts had scrambled to get everything ready in just over two months.
The 132-foot rocket slid out of a Baikonur hangar Thursday and was transported about a mile across the barren Kazakh steppe to the launch pad.
Tourists, camera-toting soldiers and Russian space officials watched as the rocket was hoisted into position. The two crew members stayed away because of a Russian superstition that it's bad luck to watch the rocket's setup.
"It is sort of like seeing your bride right before the wedding," joked Lu's younger brother, Rick.
Lu and Malenchenko were cramming more studying into their last hours before blastoff.
They'll need to pass along lessons on how the Soyuz works to the three crew members currently on the station -- astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin -- who will return in early May. The three men had been expecting to come back on the U.S. shuttle Atlantis.