Three astronauts head for the space station

A Soyuz rocket carrying United States astronaut Edward Michael Fincke, Dutchman Andre Kuipers and Russia’s Gennady Padalka blasted off for the International Space Station early on Monday.

The rocket successfully entered orbit nine minutes after taking off from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 9:19am [3:19am GMT], said officials at Russia’s space mission control centre.

The three astronauts are due to dock at the station about 400km above the earth on Wednesday, where Fincke and Padalka will replace Michael Foale and Alexander Kalery, who have been there since last October.

Padalka and Fincke are due to remain at the station for six months, and are to perform two space walks in June and August to install equipment for the Jules Verne, a European-built new automated transfer vehicle, which is due to arrive at the station in April 2005.

Kuipers, a Dutchman who is making his maiden voyage into space on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA), will stay at the ISS for nine days before returning to Earth with Foale and Kalery on April 30.

He is to perform 21 experiments, including studying the effect of weightlessness on blood pressure and heart beat, as part of the “Delta” project—Dutch Expedition for Life science, Technology and Atmospheric research.

Ever since the Columbia shuttle disaster last year, Russia’s Soyuz rockets are the only way astronauts and equipment get to and from the ISS, a 16-nation project that includes Canada, ESA, Japan, Russia and the United States.

The current Soyuz mission is the third to the ISS since the United States froze shuttle missions after Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry in February last year.

ESA is negotiating with Russia to send a European astronaut next year on a long-term mission to the ISS.

“It would be premature to say exactly when the Europeans will be able to join the permanent mission,” ESA spokesperson Franco Bonacina said before leaving for Baikonur.

ESA wants its cosmonauts to have the right to take part in permanent missions, which currently last six months. The agency is in talks with Russia on sending two Europeans in 2005 on Russian Soyuz rockets, ESA’s manned flight director Joerg Feustel-Bueechl said earlier in April in Moscow.

“After the flight of the Dutchman Andre Kuipers on April 19, we are planning for two flights [of Europeans], in April and in October 2005,” he said.

The planned mission in April 2005 onboard the same Soyuz of a space tourist, US businessman Gregory Olsen, could create “some problems” for Nasa, Feustel-Bueechl said.

Soyuz space craft have three places, one of which must be occupied by a Russian cosmonaut. If a tourist and a European blast off on the same mission, there would be no space for a Nasa astronaut.

To solve the problem, the Russian space agency has suggested to Nasa that permanent missions be extended to a year.
- Sapa-AFP

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