A Russian Soyuz spacecraft has arrived at the International Space Station with a fresh international crew. Two days after launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri and U.S. astronaut Michael Foale have reached the outpost they will inhabit for the next six-and-a-half months.
Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque flew up with them and will spend the next eight days conducting European Space Agency research. He will then return to Earth with the outgoing team of American Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko.
The Soyuz craft have become the only means to ferry crews to and from the outpost while the U.S. shuttle fleet is grounded as the result of the Columbia accident in February.
Construction on the station has come to a halt until shuttles return to flight, expected late next year. So crewmen Foale and Kaleri will maintain its systems and tend to a reduced schedule of research experiments until another caretaker team replaces them.
This is the latest in a series of delays that have beset station assembly -- a project criticized last week in the U.S. Congress. At a legislative hearing, the former head of space science at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Wes Huntress, was one of several scientists and former NASA officials who complained that the program is not moving the United States toward any compelling objective.
"The space station is not the expected transportation mode for missions beyond the Earth that it was supposed to be. It has become an Earth orbital end, unto itself," says Mr. Huntress. "I think that the legacy of the Columbia accident should be to create a new pathway and a sense of purpose for human space flight. The whole point of leaving home, after all, is to go somewhere, not to endlessly circle the block."
Other space station critics say that the experiments performed aboard the orbiting research laboratory could be conducted much more cheaply aboard satellites by remote control from Earth.
But astronaut Foale dismissed such criticism before his launch Saturday, saying the value of the station lies elsewhere. "When we look back 50 years to this time, we won't remember the experiments that were performed. We won't remember the assembly that was done," he says. "We may barely remember any individuals. What we will know was that countries came together to do the first joint international project, and we will know that was the seed that started us off to the moon and Mars."
Mr. Foale and his station partner, Alexander Kaleri, previously worked together aboard the Russian Mir space station in the late 1990s. They experienced some harrowing moments when they successfully fought a fire that nearly engulfed Mir and blocked their passage to an attached Soyuz escape vehicle.