Astronauts blast off to double space station crew

28th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

In a mission marked by a sequence of firsts, Friday's docking will mark the first time all the partners of the International Space Station will be represented at the same time on board.

Baikonur -- Three astronauts from Canada, Belgium and Russia, blasted off Wednesday for the International Space Station in a landmark mission that will double its crew to six for the first time.

Belgian Frank De Winne, Canadian Robert Thirsk and Russian Roman Romanenko lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Well-wishers including Prince Philippe of Belgium applauded as the rocket rose into the blue, cloud-flecked sky over the Central Asian steppe.

"The sun -- yes, we can see it," Romanenko said by radio from the rocket, a doll representing his favourite Russian cartoon character hanging nearby as a talisman.

"We feel fine. All is in order," said Thirsk in Russian.

When they dock after a two-day flight to the ISS, the trio will join the current three-person crew, who arrived in March and will remain on the station for several more months.

This will raise the station's permanent crew to six for the first time, allowing the astronauts to make full use of the capacities of the ISS, which orbits 350 kilometres (220 miles) above Earth.

The voyage marks a rise in the frequency of manned flights aboard the Soyuz, a Soviet-designed rocket that originated in the late 1960s.

Russia is stepping up the number of launches from two in previous years to four this year.

Among those watching at Baikonur in Kazakhstan was the Canadian's 81-year-old mother.

"He's doing what he always wanted to do. I'm very happy for him," she said.

"He has spent all these years preparing. What an achievement for his career," added Thirsk's brother, Rich.

Prince Philippe told a throng of mainly Belgian reporters the mission was "very important for Belgium."

"It is the first time a European will take charge of the ISS," he added, noting that De Winne will become the station's commander in October.

The three will be joining Russian Gennady Padalka, American Michael Barratt and Japan's Koichi Wakata aboard the station.

De Winne will take over from Padalka as station commander when the crew is rotated in October, before returning to Earth in November.

In a mission marked by a sequence of firsts, Friday's docking will also mark the first time all the partners in the station -- the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada -- will be represented at the same time on board.

De Winne is only the second European to undertake a full six-month mission to space after the German Thomas Reiter in 2006. Italian Paolo Nespoli is due to carry out a similar mission from November 2010.

The European Space Agency (ESA) now receives 8.3 percent of the experiment time aboard the ISS, meaning it can send an astronaut to the station for a six-month mission every two years.

The station has become a sophisticated platform for scientific experiments after the installation of a European laboratory last year and the arrival of a hi-tech Japanese lab, Kibo, which is currently being completed.

A huge new solar array was installed this year to give more power and Russia is currently expanding its section of the station.

Amid all the technology, one feature new arrivals will have to contend with is a facility installed this month that enables astronauts to drink their recycled urine.

The astronauts are also experimenting with growing radishes with a view to greater self-sufficiency -- and are having some success, ITAR-TASS quoted a source at the Russian Academy of Sciences as saying.

Among numerous scientific experiments, Thirsk, 55, will take medication usually prescribed to geriatric patients to counter the effects of bone loss in space.

One purpose of the space station is as a test-bed for more ambitious human space flight to destinations such as Mars.

Russia's Soyuz rockets are set to become the sole means of reaching the ISS when the United States decommissions its space shuttles in 2010.

Benoit Finck/AFP/Expatica

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