A new multinational crew is heading to the international space station. They lifted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan Saturday for a two-day journey aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, the substitute transportation for the U.S. shuttle fleet that was grounded after February's shuttle accident.
American Michael Foale and Russian Alexander Kaleri are to arrive at the space station Monday 3:17 a.m. EDT for a six-and-a-half month stay.
They will replace astronaut Ed Lu and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko as the caretaker crew. Their main responsibility will be to continue maintaining the outpost in standby status until U.S. shuttles return to flight in about one year to resume its construction.
Accompanying the new crew on the ride up is Spaniard Pedro Duque. He will conduct European Space Agency experiments until he returns on a Soyuz with the old team in 10 days.
With shuttles out of operation, the U.S. space agency NASA is sending only two permanent crewmembers to the station for the time being. This is because Russian supply rockets cannot carry enough cargo to support the usual three-person crew. In addition, lack of promised state funding has delayed the next Russian resupply mission several months.
The NASA official supervising the current expedition, Merri Sanchez, says the reduced crew size has forced a sharp cutback in time for research experiments because station upkeep has a higher priority.
"We've realized that the third set of hands and brains sure would have come in handy at times. It is a little more difficult to get everything done that would like to get done with only two people, but we have accomplished all of the things that we have had to get done. We have been able to maintain the station and do productive research," she explained.
A major objective for the new crew will be a spacewalk early next year to prepare the station for the arrival a new European supply vehicle, scheduled to make its first visit next September. The lack of a third astronaut poses a challenge in this regard, too. The man in charge of the new team, Pete Hasbrook, says ground controllers must make sure the station can operate safely without a third person inside running things and coordinating the spacewalk.
"So we need to go back and review our procedures and configurations, and make sure that there is nothing there that would surprise us as we go configure our systems to have nobody home for most of the day," he said.
Astronaut Foale and cosmonaut Kaleri are both veterans of the Russian Mir space station, now defunct. They make up the eighth crew for the international station since occupation began three years ago.