Baikonur, Kazakstan The first crew of what has been called the most ambitious international science project ever attempted, the $60 billion International Space Station, was set to blast off on its four-month mission today.
From the same pad used by the first Sputnik in 1957 and Russian cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin, who opened the era of manned space flight in 1961, a slender Soyuz TM-31 launch vehicle was to start an American and two Russians on a voyage that could represent the beginning of humanity's permanent habitation of space.
Agreed upon by the U.S. and Russian governments in 1993 and under construction since 1998, the project has become the primary focus of both countries' space programs.
Expedition I is commanded by Navy Capt. William Shepherd, 51, who has flown three prior U.S. space shuttle missions. His crew consists of Russian air force Lt. Col. Yuri Gidzenko, 38, who was to pilot the Soyuz launch vehicle into orbit and dock it 48 hours later with the space station 221 miles above the earth; and Russian flight engineer Sergei Krikalev, 42, a veteran of four Russian and U.S. space missions. Krikalev is one of the world's most experienced space travelers, having logged 484 days in orbit.
The astronaut and two cosmonauts have been training in each other's languages since 1996. They plan to speak a polyglot they call "Runglish" and eat both Russian and American foods during their mission. As the first crew, their job will be to turn on computer and navigation systems, assist in expansion of the space station and establish everyday procedures in short, to bring it to life.
Although it is already 140 feet long and weighs 80 tons, the space station remains very much a work in progress. Dozens more construction missions are anticipated in the next five years. The space station will gradually expand until it weighs about 1 million pounds and be both longer and wider than a football field. Huge solar panels will generate more than 60 times the power for experiments than on the existing Russian orbiter Mir.
The station is designed to remain operational for at least 15 years and perhaps as long as 25 years. Its laboratories are expected to contribute vital knowledge about the effects of microgravity and long-term living in space, lessons that could lay the foundation for new drug discoveries or a possible future manned voyage to Mars.