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US/Russian/Brazilian Crew Head to Space Station

A new crew is on its way to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spaceship. A Russian cosmonaut and U.S. astronaut, joined by Brazil's first astronaut, took off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, for a two-day flight to orbit. The mission will support the basic operations of the orbiting research laboratory until U.S. space shuttles fly again.

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams, and the first Brazilian to head for orbit, Marcos Pontes, took off from the same launch pad that Yuri Gagarin did when he became the first human to orbit Earth in 1961.

The deputy space station manager at the U.S. space agency NASA, Kirk Shireman, witnessed the launch.

"Last night having dinner right next to the cottage where Gagarin stayed the night before his launch, this morning watching the vehicle roll out of the assembly building, then here on the launch pad, you certainly feel the history of human spaceflight all around you. It's great to be a part of that," said Mr. Shireman.

Cosmonaut Vinogradov and astronaut Williams will do the normal tour of duty aboard the station, six months. They will take over from astronaut William McArthur and cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, who are set to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz a week after their replacements arrive.

Brazilian crewman Pontes will return with them after conducting several days of studies on microscopic technology called nanotechnology. His presence on the outpost celebrates the 100th anniversary of Brazil's first airplane flight by aviator Alberto Santo-Dumont.

Again, Kirk Shireman.

"It's a pleasure to see all the different flags on this Soyuz vehicle," he added. "So I'm looking forward to those guys being up there and continuing the work that we have on the International Space Station."

Vinogradov and Williams are the 13th crew for the station since occupation began in 2000, and the eighth two-man crew. Crew size dropped from three to two after the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003. The almost continuous grounding of the shuttle fleet since then has left no cargo craft big enough to haul the amount of supplies necessary to support three people and the equipment required to continue station construction.

As a result, station occupants have had little time to do much more than be caretakers for the outpost, with science experiments significantly reduced. Vinogradov and Williams expect to conduct two maintenance spacewalks during their half-year expedition.

Last July's mission of the shuttle Discovery was to have ended the long flight hiatus and allowed the station's crew size to return to three shortly thereafter. But NASA grounded the fleet again because Discovery's external fuel tank shed dangerous debris during launch, the same problem that caused Columbia's demise. After a long overhaul of the tank's foam insulation covering, Discovery is expected to launch again no earlier than July.

When it does, it will bring a third station crewmember who has been forced to patiently await his chance to board it while the shuttle fleet has been grounded. He is German astronaut Thomas Reiter, the first non-American or non-Russian long-duration crewmember on the outpost.

American deputy station manager Shireman says he looks forward to the renewal of normal operations aboard the station and the resumption of its assembly.

"That's really critical to the program, to continue that building, especially when we know that shuttles are going to retire in 2010," he noted.