A two-man crew, one Russian, the other American, is set to blast off Saturday from Russia's Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan bound for the International Space Station. It will mark the first manned launch since the U.S. shuttle Columbia disaster in February and it highlights the increasingly important role Russia is playing in keeping the ISS program flying, during a time of serious challenges.
Since the Columbia tragedy, in which seven astronauts died when the shuttle disintegrated on re-entry, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration has put a freeze on shuttle flights. This has left the orbiting International Space Station dependent entirely on Russian craft to carry food, fuel, and crews into space.
It is a big responsibility given that Russia's own space program has been challenged for years, both financially and technically. But the press secretary to the general director of the Russian Air Space Agency, Sergei Gorbunov, insisted to VOA this week that Russia is up to the challenge.
Mr. Gorbunov said Russia has already assumed its new role and responsibility for the space station, despite what he characterized as his nation's very tense financial situation. He said Russia will assume its new duties in good faith until the U.S. space shuttle program is declared safe to resume operations.
But that, say NASA officials, may still be more than one year in the future.
Saturday's mission via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will deliver a replacement crew to man the ISS for the next six months; Russian cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko and American astronaut Edward Lu.
The Soyuz also will bring the current crew back to earth. They had been scheduled to return aboard the Atlantis shuttle last month, but that spacecraft, along with the rest of the U.S. shuttles, has been grounded.
Previous crews had consisted of three members, but a reduction was made in this case because of the need to economize food and water at the space station in the wake of Columbia's demise.
This need to trim the crew means that not all tasks on the International Space Station can be carried out as they have been in the past. Russian space official Alexander Kaleri, who spoke to reporters in Moscow, is commander of the back-up crew for Saturday's launch. He said most of the effort will be devoted to station maintenance. That, he said, will leave little time for scientific research.
In the first days after the Columbia disaster, there was some discussion of even leaving the International Space Station unmanned for a time. That idea no longer appears under active consideration. The deputy director general at Russia's RKK Energia, Yuri Grigoriev, is grateful for that decision. His company is a leading Russian contractor on the ISS project.
Mr. Grigoriev says he sees no engineering issues that could prevent Russia from fulfilling its new duties to maintain the space station up to next year, not even the tricky task of keeping the ISS in orbit.
Friction from the sparse atmosphere in the station's orbit causes it to slowly lose altitude. Ordinarily, the shuttle is used to push it back into position during its visits. But Mr. Grigoriev stressed that task is now safely in Russia's hands.
But while he is confident Russia is ready to bear any burden technically, Mr. Grigoriev did stress concern that proper financing is and will continue to be a major challenge.
Mr. Grigoriev also said Russian space officials were, in his words, frankly surprised that the United States had not offered to help Russia with technical issues or funding at this time.
Two weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia understood the enormous responsibility that "now lies on our shoulders." He said his government would ensure that adequate funding is available to keep the International Space Station in working order.
The Russian government has since decided to earmark an additional $38 million for the space program during the next six months, including the building of more spacecraft to fill the gap left by the suspension of U.S. shuttle flights.
President Putin has said further financing will be examined, if necessary.
Mr. Grigoriev said he hopes the Russian government will provide additional funds for ISS operations in the second half of this year. But he warned there is no guarantee such funds will be forthcoming.
Saturday's launch will be another hallmark. It is the first time in the history of the Russian manned space program that astronauts with the U.S. space agency will act as flight engineers aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.
Because of the circumstances in the wake of the Columbia disaster, U.S. astronaut Lu had just two months to complete a flight-engineer course that usually takes eight months to one year.
Despite the hardship, Mr. Lu stressed the importance of continuing with space research in honor of his fallen shuttle colleagues. Mr. Lu spoke during recent observances on Russia's Cosmonaut's Day and praised Russian space experts for stepping into the breach during this difficult time for the International Space Station. He said that without Russia's help at this critical juncture, it would be impossible to continue ISS operations.
Russian space officials say that while this period in their 10-year involvement with the International Space Station is like no other, they are confident they will be up to the challenge.