Rocket Mission Set to Double Space Station Crew

Associated Press + More

PETER LEONARD
Associated Press Writer

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan—Three astronauts set to make history by doubling the permanent population of the international space station received the go-ahead Tuesday for this week's launch from Russia's remote space complex in Kazakhstan.

Severe winds at the launch site and an unconfirmed report of a journalist being diagnosed with swine flu had raised last-minute concerns that the flight might be canceled.

But Russian space officials gave final clearance for the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft that will ferry Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and Belgium's Frank De Winne to the orbiting laboratory.

Liftoff is scheduled for 4:34 p.m. local time (1034 GMT; 0634 EDT) Wednesday from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome, located in the steppe of Kazakhstan. The Russian-made Soyuz TMA-15 capsule is expected to dock with the space station about two days later.

Thirsk called the expansion from a three-person to a six-person crew a "milestone" and said one of their goals was "to prove the station can support six people for a long duration."

Living space on the international space station has been expanded over the past few months to accommodate more astronauts. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said in the future, the space station could take as many as 13 people onboard, as the crew plays host to short-term visitors.

The larger crew will burnish the international credentials of the international space station, currently occupied by Russia's Gennady Padalka, U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt and Japan's Koichi Wakata.

Thirsk said a primary objective of the mission will be to assess how well a large number of people live together in the confines of a spacecraft.

"What we'll do over the next months will be to prepare for future space exploration," De Winne said.

Thirsk, 55, will become the first Canadian to spend six months in space, easily outstripping other Canadian astronauts. In another first, De Winne, 48, will become the first European to take command of the international space station in October, taking over from Padalka.

Romanenko, 37, is the second Russian to follow his father into space. Yuri Romanenko flew as a space commander in the 1970s and 1980s.

In contrast with the most recent launches from Baikonur, no space tourists will be onboard the latest mission.

Strong winds Monday caused an eight-hour delay in installing the Soyuz rocket on its launch pad. The Russian space agency Roscosmos says the delay will not affect the mission schedule.

Weather forecasters expect the winds to die down by the planned launch time.

A Russian news agency Monday reported that a foreign journalist at Baikonur had been diagnosed with swine flu, but the reports proved to be unfounded.

In any event, the astronauts are strictly quarantined to prevent infection.

"Quarantine protects us not only from illnesses but also from all other kinds of distractions," De Winne said, speaking in French.