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Next space station mission approved
Two men to replace the current three, using Russian craft

HOUSTON, Feb. 27 — The first step on NASA’s road to recovery from the Columbia catastrophe has been made with the decision to launch two men — one Russian and one American — to the international space station in early May. As the first human space mission since the loss of the space shuttle and its seven astronauts on Feb. 1, this flight will provide a much-needed psychological boost to the American space program. COSMONAUT YURI MALENCHENKO and astronaut Ed Lu will blast off aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-2 spacecraft about May 5, Russian space officials have announced. NASA has not yet officially confirmed the selection of these two veteran spacemen, but internal NASA documents about the crew have been obtained by MSNBC.com. Malenchenko and Lu will dock with the international space station two days after launch and will meet the three men of Expedition 6 who are currently on board. Ken Bowersox, Nikolai Budarin and Donald Pettit will spend a week briefing the new crew about the nitty-gritty of operating the 130-ton orbital outpost. They will then return to Earth aboard the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft now docked to the station, landing in the standard Russian recovery zone in Kazakhstan. To date, only one American has ever landed in a Soyuz spacecraft: California millionaire Dennis Tito, the world’s first paying space tourist. Russian and American space officials decided to send only two men to the station based on concerns over limited supplies of water and other consumables, in the absence of cargo normally brought up on shuttle missions. Although Russia has scheduled a series of unmanned supply flights later this year using Progress vehicles, these can’t carry enough cargo to maintain a three-person crew in the absence of shuttle missions.


The selection of which two people to send was a complex process. Several different combinations of astronauts and cosmonauts were discussed in recent weeks. The original crew for Soyuz TMA-2 was to have included a Russian pilot (Gennady Padalka), a Spanish flight engineer (Pedro Duque) and probably another Russian engineer. Spain would have paid the Russians $12 million for the flight, a cash infusion that was critical for the funding of the spacecraft and its launch rocket. The visiting crew would have spent a few days on the station and then returned to Earth aboard the older Soyuz TMA-1. The main point of the mission was to have been merely to replace the older Soyuz, which is nearing the end of its certified mission duration. But then the shuttle fleet was grounded, and the planned station crew exchange in March — which relied on a flight by the shuttle Atlantis — was canceled. It became clear that the exchange of the long-term “expedition” crews would have to be accomplished on the Soyuz TMA-2 mission. Since Padalka has already commanded one Mir expedition and was also slated to command a space station expedition later this year, one early suggestion was for him to remain in command of the Soyuz TMA-2 and fly with an American astronaut from his future station crew, Michael Fincke. But although Fincke’s credentials are impressive and he speaks excellent Russian, he is a space rookie. Other candidates considered for flight with Padalka reported included Jim Voss, veteran of the second station expedition, and Michael Foale, a five-time space traveler and veteran of a hair-raising tour aboard the Mir space station in 1997. After careful consideration, NASA decided to “disassemble” the originally planned crew for the March 1 shuttle mission, STS-114. The three men slated for the next station crew, Expedition 7, were broken up: Malenchenko and Lu would launch aboard Soyuz TMA-2, and the third man, veteran Russian flight engineer Alexander Kaleri, would be put in command of the backup Soyuz crew.


To fill out Kaleri’s crew, NASA selected Foale, who has been in training for Expedition 8. Kaleri and Foale will be training to fly to the station aboard Soyuz TMA-3 in October if space shuttle flights do not resume by then. Malenchenko has been designated the overall station commander for Expedition 7. Foale would be his successor as station commander if he and Kaleri are sent up in October. The commander of the delayed Atlantis mission, Eileen Collins, remains on tap to fly the next shuttle mission. Whenever it finally occurs, her flight will bring up critically needed supplies and a new three-person space station crew. That crew served as a backup team for Malenchenko, Lu and Kaleri, and will be commanded by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, a veteran of Mir missions as well as the international space station’s Expedition 1. Malenchenko, 41, and Lu, 40, have already flown in space together. On the STS-106 Atlantis mission in September 2000, they spent 10 days aboard the international space station preparing it for the arrival of its first permanent crew the following month. While there, they performed a six-hour spacewalk in order to connect power, data and communications cables between the newly arrived Zvezda service module and the rest of the space station. Although no spacewalks are planned for their next mission, their experience is critical if one becomes necessary in a contingency situation. This is because they would be going outside without the assistance of a third crewman to help them suit up. Their activities will be almost entirely focused on station maintenance and servicing. Although they will have little time for science operations, planners hope that many experiments that are operated remotely can continue. Launching of Soyuz TMA-2 was originally slated for April 27 at about 0345 GMT (11:45 p.m. ET April 26). Delays in the final fabrication of the vehicles has pushed this back to about May 5, just after midnight GMT (8 p.m. ET May 4). This would lead to a Soyuz TMA-1 landing on about May 13, after 195 days of flight. The certified maximum mission duration of the spacecraft is 210 days, although Russian engineers believe it can be safely extended a few weeks beyond that. Nevertheless, they want to get Soyuz TMA-1 back on Earth before the end of May. As long as the shuttle fleet is grounded, the international space station must rely on a continuing stream of unmanned Progress supply ships as well as the Soyuz capsules. During a House committee hearing on Thursday, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said that Russia would prepare extra Progress ships for launch this year and next year. One issue yet to be determined is whether NASA would reimburse the cash-strapped Russian Aviation and Space Agency for extra expenses. Currently, the 2000 Iran Nonproliferation Act forbids such payments, but NASA could be exempted from the ban if the White House determines that the vehicles are needed to ensure the safety of the space station’s crew.


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