Sunday, Apr 27, 2003
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By Vladimir Radyuhin
The Soyuz rocket blasts off from the Baikonur launching pad on Saturday. (Inset) The U.S. astronaut, Edward Lu, in front, and the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Malenchenko, on board the shuttle.
The Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Malenchenko, and the U.S. astronaut, Edward Lu, will replace a crew of two Americans and one Russian who have been in space since November. The three were to return in March on the U.S. shuttle Atlantis, but the programme was grounded after the Columbia shuttle disaster. The ISS crew will now return aboard a Russian lifeboat docked to the space station. For today's mission, Russia used an updated carrier rocket, Soyuz-FG, equipped with more powerful engines to increase the payload.
The crew capsule, Soyuz-TM-2, has also been modernised in accordance with U.S. standards. The Soyuz spacecraft has a strong safety record, with no fatalities since 1971, when a Russian crew of three died during re-entry. The two U.S. shuttle disasters killed 14 astronauts.
With the U.S. shuttle flights suspended for at least a year, Russia alone has the capabilities to keep the ISS afloat by transporting cargo and crew. Before the disaster, the shuttle carried rotating crews to the station, while Russia was responsible for launching Progress cargo ships and short-term manned missions to ISS, as well as keeping a Soyuz spacecraft as an emergency escape capsule docked to the space station.
The rotating ISS crew has now been cut from three to two, as Russian spacecraft are much smaller than the U.S. shuttles.
Today's launching was clouded by a dispute between Moscow and Washington over the funding of additional Russian space flights following the grounding of the U.S. shuttles. Russia will have to send four instead of three cargo ships to ISS this year, and to increase the number of flights next year from five to eight. NASA, has so far refused to finance the construction of extra Russian spacecraft, citing a Congress ban on procurement of Russian space hardware as long as Russia supplied nuclear and missile technology to Iran. The Russian Government agreed this month to boost funding to build more spacecraft to keep the ISS permanently inhabited.
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