A Soyuz spacecraft carrying British-born astronaut Michael Foale and two others blasted off today for the International Space Station from the Russian space programme’s cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The launch came three days after China became the world’s third space faring nation, joining the ranks of the then Soviet Union and the US. It was the second manned space launch from Baikonur since the US space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February, putting the US space programme on hold.
Since the Columbia disaster, the US space agency has been dependent on the Russians to keep its astronaut corps flying. The European Space Agency, lack its own means to launch astronauts, also regularly buys seats on the non-reusable Russian spacecraft.
The new space station responsibilities have put a strain on the Russian space programme’s budget, but have also boosted the prestige of an agency that was derided a few years ago for becoming a provider of expensive junkets for rich space tourists.
“I want to convey our thanks for your support during this period when the shuttle cannot fly,” Charlie Precourt, the Nasa deputy manager responsible for the space station, told a meeting of Russia’s most senior space officials yesterday.
The three-man crew – Foale, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri and Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque – are to reach the space station after a two-day trip. The spacecraft was to reach orbit about nine minutes after lift-off.
The crew took off from the same launch pad that rocketed Yuri Gagarin into the history books into 1961 as the first man to go into orbit.
American astronaut Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who have been in space since April, will show their replacements, Foale and Kaleri, around the station before heading home on October 28 with Duque aboard another Soyuz that is already docked at the station.
Duque, whose first foray into space was aboard the US shuttle Discovery in 1998 with former astronaut and US Senator John Glenn, plans to spend his eight days on the floating space lab carrying out of a series of experiments.