Two new crewmembers have blasted off for the International Space Station Saturday aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. They were supposed to have arrived at the outpost aboard a U.S. space shuttle last month, but the loss of the shuttle Columbia and the subsequent grounding of the shuttle fleet upset those plans. In fact, the Columbia disaster has changed much about their mission at the station.
U.S. astronaut Edward Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko will be the seventh crew to inhabit the space station since occupation began 2 1/2 years ago. A third crewman was originally part of their team, but the shuttle flight moratorium forced the U.S. space agency NASA to cut the crew size and many other aspects of this mission.
Although Soyuz craft can carry three people, they lack the vast cargo space of a shuttle. So do Russian Progress rockets, which have become the only other supply ships for the time being.
The NASA manager for this expedition, Merri Sanchez, says the space restrictions have meant strict limits on cargo and activities aboard the station. "We're working with our Russian partners to ensure only the mandatory hardware is flying," he said. "We're reducing usage rates of some items on orbit, and we're delaying maintenance and change of hardware and extending the on-orbit life of hardware. We're also prepared to accept degraded performance of non-critical systems during this time period."
NASA is even asking crewmen Lu and Malenchenko to change their clothing less often.
Because so little equipment can go up, station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier says NASA is deemphasizing scientific experiments, the very reason the outpost is being built in the first place. "There won't be a lot of new science brought to the station," he said. "We're going to have to utilize the science that's already there on station. Whereas before we had more science than we had time for the crew to do, it looks like now we're going to have at least enough time for them to do those activities, but maybe not enough actual experiments for them to perform."
Basically, the new space station crew will keep watch over the systems on board until they are replaced in October. To keep things simple, NASA even removed a maintenance spacewalk from their schedule. Instead, it assigned the outing to the current crew while a third person could monitor their activities.
Basic caretaking might also be the fate of subsequent station crews until U.S. shuttles return to flight. Mr. Gerstenmaier says NASA never seriously considered leaving the outpost vacant.
"It looks like we can extend the two crewperson staffing for as long as it takes. Once we get to a steady state configuration, we can stay with a crew size of two for an extended period of time," he said.
The American and the Russian will be the first two-person crew aboard the space station. With fewer activities and no visits by shuttle construction crews, NASA admits to the possibility of psychological problems and strained relations between the pair.
"It's going to be extremely challenging for two folks to be alone up there for a six-month period," he said.
This is former astronaut Bob Cabana, NASA's director of flight crew operations. "We want to make sure that the crew has meaningful work to do. We're working on making sure the crew has some entertaining things up there for them varied activities," he said. "So it's an issue that we're concerned about, but I think the crew is going to be well prepared to deal with it and we'll make sure that things go right."
Station crews regularly speak with family members by audio and video communications. They also talk frequently with mission controllers and psychologists.
In the new crew's favor is the fact that they know each other well. Astronaut Lu and cosmonaut Malenchenko have trained as a team for several months. Before that, they were united on a shuttle visit to the station, where they took a spacewalk together.