BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- A Soyuz rocket with U.S. astronaut Edward Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko aboard blasted off for the international space station earlier today on a mission intended to keep space exploration going despite the Columbia tragedy.
From deep in the Kazakh step, the 130-foot Russian rocket, the latest version of the world's longest-serving manned spacecraft, soared into space just at 7:54 Moscow time (11:54 a.m. CDT) on its way to the international space station, some 220 miles above Earth.
Usually just a reserve, safety vehicle, the Soyuz TMA-2 -- based loosely on the same technology that sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961 -- is now Earth's only link with the $60 billion space outpost. NASA and the Russian space program are relying on it to get the three-man crew currently on the station home, and ferry up their replacements.
"This is a big responsibility right now," said Lu of Webster, New York, speaking with journalists Friday on the front steps of the Cosmonaut Hotel. "We will be continuing human space flight."
Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts on board and raising questions about what would happen to the space station, which is heavily reliant on the U.S. vehicle.
Russia agreed to step in to take up the slack, a move that both NASA and Russian space officials have said is testament to the new era of cooperation between their agencies, once fierce competitors.
Russian officials rearranged their space schedule to accommodate Lu and Malenchenko, who initially had planned to hitch a ride to the station on board the shuttle Atlantis.
They will replace U.S. astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, who have been in space since November. The trio will return to Earth in early May on another Soyuz -- one is always kept docked at the station as a "lifeboat" in case the crew needs to evacuate quickly -- after giving Lu and Malenchenko a weeklong tour.
Russian and U.S. experts scrambled to get Expedition 7 ready in record time. Lu, already a veteran astronaut and a decent Russian speaker, had to brush up on his language skills and cram what is usually a yearlong training period into less than three months.