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Soyz Launches for ISS

First Crew Blast Off to International Space Station

By Sujata Rao

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (Oct. 31) - Two Russians and an American 
blasted off for the $60-billion International Space Station on Tuesday on an 
expedition that heralds a new era in the history of space exploration.

The 120-foot white, orange and grey Soyuz TM-31 rocket roared into the foggy 
autumn sky right on time at 0752 GMT from Launch Pad One -- the site from 
which Yuri Gagarin blasted off to become the first human in space 39 years 

American William Shepherd and Russians Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalyov 
will be the first people to live on the station, blazing a trail for possible 
missions to other planets.

The crew, in white and blue space suits and carrying portable ventilation 
systems, flashed broad grins and waved to the crowd as they headed to the 
launch site.

''Let's go do it,'' Shepherd called out, giving the thumbs up before the trio 
disappeared into the rocket.

Contrary to forecasts, the launch site was covered in a thick fog that space 
officials said presented extra problems but would not delay lift-off.


Within seconds of the rocket clearing the launch site, live television 
pictures showed the crew reporting to mission controllers. Shepherd could be 
seen waving to the camera.

Before leaving for the launch site the men, set to be the first to inhabit 
the ISS on a voyage seen as the start of a new era in space exploration, were 
blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest and drank champagne with journalists and 

''Thank you for all of the past four years that we spent together,'' Gidzenko 
said, raising his glass.

''We have done everything it takes to make this flight a success,'' said 
Pyotr Klimuk, head of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center where the crew 
were prepared.

The ISS is a 16-nation project aimed at realizing man's dream of living in 

As well as Russia and the United States, the ISS project includes Canada, 
Brazil, Japan and member countries of the European Space Agency.

Hailed as one of humanity's greatest engineering feats, the ISS will 
eventually be the brightest object in the night sky and the only artificial 
heavenly body visible to the naked eye.


When finished in 2005, it will be seven stories high, weigh 418 tonnes and 
have as much living space as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. The first crew will 
focus on building up the ISS.
Once on board, the crew will inhabit the Russian-built Zvezda living 
quarters, which were launched from Baikonur earlier this year. Two other 
modules -- the Russian-built Zarya and the U.S.-built Unity -- have been in 
orbit since 1998.

The road to Tuesday's launch has not been easy.

Krikalyov criticized Russia earlier this month for allowing the United States 
to take the lead in the project, voicing fears that Moscow's participation in 
the ISS had become secondary.

Shepherd will be the first commander aboard the ISS, a sensitive point for 
Russia, which has struggled for years to scrape together enough cash for its 
space programme.

The United States has also criticized Russia for wasting its limited funds on 
the aging Mir space station.

But on the eve of the launch both partners stressed that joint efforts would 
be the way of the future.

''When it comes down to it, the model for space exploration is international 
cooperation,'' Michael Foale, deputy head of the Johnson Space Center and a 
Mir veteran, told Reuters.

''This flight is the keystone to all future exploration from this planet -- 
to the Moon, to Mars and asteroids.''
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