It has been two years since the international space station was first occupied, and the research outpost is getting its sixth crew. The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour will ferry the team and more new hardware as station construction continues.
A fresh U.S. and Russian team moves in to the space station, and command switches again from one nation to another. U.S. astronaut Ken Bowersox relieves Russian commander Valery Korzun. Joining him for five months in orbit is cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin and astronaut Donald Pettit, taking over from cosmonaut Sergei Treschev and U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson.
Commander Bowersox says Mr. Budarin is the only member of his team to have lived on a space station, in this case, the now-defunct Russian Mir. "So he's the only one on our crew who's actually spent more than a couple weeks in orbit," he said. "We're going to be counting on him for lots of advice on to put up with the conditions of weightlessness for month after month after month."
Still, the new station commander has had lots of terrestrial experience in station living. Before the months of training for this mission, he was a backup for the first crew two years ago. Mr. Bowersox says the work aboard the station has changed since then, switching focus from setting up the quarters for habitation to more scientific research.
Another change he has seen in two years is smoother working relations among the international ground teams that control and support the station. "People in all the different countries that make up the international space station program are becoming more adept at dealing with uncertainty, different cultures," he said. "We still don't have it worked out yet, but what four years ago would have caused a conflagration and a bazillion [many] meetings and we all agreed we couldn't handle it, a lot of those types of issues now just get sorted out before they become a problem."
As Commander Bowersox's team moves in, the years-long assembly of the station moves ahead with installation of another section of its expanding backbone. Shuttle official Kim Ulrich says astronauts will mount another 15-meter aluminum girder, the third of 11 truss sections that will eventually span 100 meters to hold heat radiators and power and data relay equipment for future research laboratories. "The solar panels are providing the electricity and power we need for the on-orbit systems," said Kim Ulrich. "When hardware functions and runs, it starts to warm up so this is pretty much like our air conditioning unit. It's providing the cooling to keep this avionics hardware in the thermal environment it needs to be in."
Normally on a shuttle construction visit to the station, the shuttle crew does the assembly work. And if a new station crew goes up, they are free to focus on taking up their new duties. But shuttle commander Jim Wetherbee says the Endeavour visit will differ because his team needs the new station crew's help on some of the construction work. "We've had to ask Ken Bowersox and his crew to be part of the shuttle crew during the assembly tasks," he said. "We're going to ask them to delay the start of their five-month expedition and not do any of the handover until after the critical fourth day of the flight, as they are heavily involved in the assembly installing the truss on the space station."
Like last month's shuttle visit, two astronauts will make three spacewalks to connect the newest truss section to the established structure.
One of the spacewalkers, by the way, will be John Herrington, the first American Indian in space. He is bringing mementos of his Oklahoma Chickasaw tribe into orbit - eagle feathers, arrowheads, Indian pottery, wooden flutes, and a handful of sacred ground.