Sat, Apr 03, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Russian and US astronauts blast off

SHUTTLE DIPLOMACYWhen the US space shuttle program is mothballed later this year, Russian rockets will provide the only access to the international space station

AFP , BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN

Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov, right, and US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson speak at Kazakhstan’s Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome yesterday not long before their launch to the International Space Station.

PHOTO: AFP

Two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut blasted off yesterday for a re-supply and re-staffing mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Soyuz rocket lifted off on schedule from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome on the Kazakh steppe at 04:04 GMT, carrying US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Korniyenko.

Friends and family members of the astronauts cheered as the announcement came over the loudspeakers that the rocket had successfully reached orbit at 04:14 GMT.

“Just a wonderful launch. Great preparation by the ground team to get the rocket ready. Just a super way to start the mission,” said NASA associate administrator for space operations William Gerstenmaier.

The Soyuz crew’s two Russian members, Skvortsov and Korniyenko, are taking their first trip to space after waiting more than 12 years to be picked. Korniyenko is set to turn 50 while on the ISS.

Caldwell Dyson is the crew’s most experienced member. She flew to the ISS in 2007 on the US Space Shuttle Endeavour and spent 12 days in space. The mission is one of the last launches by a Soyuz rocket to the ISS before the US space shuttle program is mothballed later this year, after which responsibility for travel to the station falls entirely on the Russian rockets.

The first shuttle launch in 1981, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s historic first trip into space, is now seen as a defining moment in the Cold War space race.

Despite losing the shuttles Columbia and Challenger in a pair of disasters, the program was considered a resounding success and soon took on the lion’s share of responsibility for transporting US astronauts.

A successor to the space shuttle is scheduled to take off no earlier than 2015.

US astronaut Caldwell Dyson had called the upcoming trip “bitter-sweet” due to the imminent loss of the shuttle, but the mood early yesterday morning ahead of the launch was one of excited anticipation.

Caldwell Dyson, who sings in a band with fellow NASA astronauts as a hobby, sang The Road by country crooner Garth Brooks.

The song, which moved several listeners to tears, was an appropriate choice, said Pamela Leora Spratlen, deputy head of mission for the US embassy in Astana.

“It’s about chasing your dreams and not letting anything stop you,” she said as the astronauts departed the building.

A throng of well-wishers shouting “Good luck!” in Russian surrounded the bus to the rocket as the astronauts climbed onboard and in response Skvortsov pumped his fists high over his head in triumph.

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