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Soyuz prepares for blastoff

Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC
Previous Permission of the Houston Chronicle granted

Russian rocket prepared for launch to space station

. NASA TV coverage of mission
. Expedition 7 mission overview
. Biographies of crew members
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- A giant hangar door in the Baikonur Cosmodrome
slid open today, revealing the Russian rocket scheduled to blast off
this week in the first manned launch since the Columbia shuttle
The 130-foot rocket, topped with the Soyuz TMA-2 spacecraft, is set to
take off Saturday from Russia's most storied launch pad, affectionately
known as "Gagarin Launch" after Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. 
The small white spaceship will ferry Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko
and American astronaut Edward Lu to the international space station for
a six-month stay. They will replace U.S. astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and
Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, who have been in space
since November. 
"The launch of the Soyuz takes on a major importance ... in wake of the
Columbia accident," NASA spokesman Ron Navias said. "It illustrates the
true mettle of an international partnership that put this mission
together in less than three months time." 

Getty Images / NASA 
Russian Soyuz TMA-2 rocket is erected at a launch pad today in Baikonur,
Kazakhstan. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and American astronaut
Edward Lu will take off from Baikonur Friday night to the International
Space Station. 
The Russian government agreed earlier this month to boost funding for
building more spacecraft to fill the gap left by the suspension of the
shuttle flights. Russia also rearranged its own space schedule to take
over NASA's commitment to deliver the new crew and thereby maintain the
station's goal of permanently inhabiting space. 
Until space shuttles start flying again, Russian rockets remain the only
link with the space station, located some 250 miles from Earth. 
The three will return to Earth in early May on an older Soyuz spaceship
already docked at the station. 
"Everything is ready to go," said Sergei Gorbunov, chief spokesman for
Rosaviakosmos, the Russian space agency, after the rocket was carried by
train about a mile across the barren Kazakh steppe to the launch pad and
gently hoisted into position. 
Columbia disintegrated on Feb. 1 over Texas, killing all seven
astronauts. A breach along the leading edge of the left wing that let in
hot atmospheric gases is considered to be the most likely cause. 
"Columbia has affected us in so many ways," said Anatoly Pavlov, deputy
director of the Baikonur factory responsible for putting together the
Progress cargo vessels that deliver food, fuel and water to the space
station. "But as with anything else, we are carrying on and trying to
get the job done." 
The Russian manned space program has had no fatalities since three
cosmonauts died during re-entry in 1971, although it has had some close
Russians bristle at suggestions that the Soyuz, unlike the more
glamorous shuttle, is based on outdated technology. Anatoly Zak, a
Russian space historian, said that while the craft may look like it
hasn't changed much, "all of the crucial systems have been updated." 
Meanwhile, Russia's own version of the shuttle, the Buran, or Blizzard,
was mothballed after a single, flawless unmanned flight in 1988 because
of money problems. 
A single Buran -- its surface chipped by the elements and scrawled with
graffiti -- sits parked between two crumbling bunkers a few miles from
the main launch pad, the site where Gagarin became the first man to roar
into space in 1961. 

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