A new crew is on its way to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spaceship. A Russian cosmonaut and U.S. astronaut took off from Baikonur, Kazahsktan, and are to arrive at the outpost Wednesday for a six-month stay. The mission maintains the basic operations of the research outpost until space shuttles fly again.
The new station commander will be cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka, a veteran of the Russian Mir space station. He is accompanied by novice astronaut Mike Fincke. They will take over from Mike Foale, the current station commander, and cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, who have been aboard since October.
Joining the new crew for the ride up is Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers. He will spend nine days aboard the station conducting European Space Agency science experiments, before returning to Earth with the outgoing crew on a Soyuz.
The new team is the eighth for the station since occupation began in 2000, but only the third two-man crew. Crew size dropped from three to two after the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disintegrated last year. The grounding of the shuttle fleet that resulted 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.
That means that the new crew is essentially continuing to maintain the outpost, as Commander Padalka acknowledges. "The biggest goal for us as a crew is to keep the space station in operational condition, until space shuttles resume their flights again, and maintain a human presence aboard the space station," he says.
The coming six-months will have some special tasks, including two spacewalks, to prepare the station to receive a new European cargo transport next year and to perform maintenance on the Russian module.
It will be only the second spacewalk by a two member crew. The U.S. space agency, NASA, prefers to have a third person inside to oversee systems and help coordinate the spacewalk. But the first two-man outing went well earlier this year, shortened only because twisted coolant lines caused cosmonaut Kaleri's space suit to overheat.
NASA says it has learned to conduct spacewalks and operate the station with two people comfortably, but station operations manager Mike Suffredini says things would be better with three.
"That third crew person provides us more flexibility to get things done, an extra set of eyes. But overall it is clear we can operate this vehicle with the two crew," he says. "What is also clear is that, without the additional crew, we are definitely missing the extra crew time, particularly with respect to getting research done."
NASA's program manager for the space station, Bill Gerstenmaier, says the orbiting laboratory is generally in good condition, but supplies of food, water and some spare parts are dwindling because of limited cargo space aboard Russian spacecraft.
"Things are pretty tight from a consumables standpoint, but they are really not a lot tighter than they were before. We just need to continue to watch them," says Mr. Gerstenmaier. "This year hasn't been easy for us flying. It's taken a lot of preparation for the teams to plan, and the teams have done a phenomenal job of that."
NASA and the Russian space agency must contend with this situation, until shuttles return to flight, now scheduled for one year from now.
In the meantime, NASA is evaluating a Russian proposal to lengthen space station missions from six months to one year. Moscow says this would provide more experience with long-duration flights to support President Bush's goal of an eventual mission to Mars. Some Mir cosmonauts have remained in orbit for that long or longer, but the longest U.S. space endurance record is just over six months.
But there is some question about Moscow's reason for the proposal. Some observers note that, with shuttles still grounded, extending the next station mission would free two seats on the Soyuz craft for sale to space tourists, who would pay millions of dollars for the opportunity to visit the outpost. Mr. Gerstenmaier does not dispute that.
"I guess we'll probably never know what the real motivation is, but we'll keep working with them and understand what's going on," he says. "As you know, the Russians are very test-oriented and I think that's part of their motivation for the one-year duration, as well as the potential for the Soyuz seat."
The NASA official says a major drawback to a longer space station mission would be reducing the number of astronauts on whom to study the debilitating physical effects of prolonged weightlessness.