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Archive for Monday, September 18, 2006

Shuttle leaves; Soyuz capsule en route

September 18, 2006

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— The international space station's three residents bade farewell to one set of houseguests Sunday and prepared for the arrival of more visitors.

The send-off of space shuttle Atlantis' six astronauts Sunday was the start of a week of heavy traffic at the space station, the equivalent of rush hour in space.

A Russian Soyuz vehicle ferrying two new station crew members and the first female space tourist blasted off late Sunday night. The Soyuz was scheduled to arrive at the space station early Wednesday, and Atlantis was set to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida later that day.

"As you need more air traffic controllers when the airport gets busier, that's the situation that we're facing," U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria said Sunday night before launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. "I frankly think it's very exciting and I think it bodes well for our future."

Early Sunday, Atlantis pilot Chris Ferguson carefully eased Atlantis through a tight corridor away from the station. About 450 feet away, he fired jets to maneuver Atlantis around the space lab so the crew could take photos of the crew's handiwork - a newly expanded station. The space station gleamed in the reflection of the sun.

In three arduous spacewalks with the blue-green Earth as a backdrop, the Atlantis crew unpacked and installed a 17 1/2-ton addition that contained a pair of solar wings that ultimately will generate a quarter of the space station's power. The wings were the first addition to the orbiting space lab since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Just before midnight Sunday, a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, Lopez-Alegria and the world's first female space tourist - Anousheh Ansari - blasted off from the middle of the Kazakh steppe. Ansari will return to Earth on Sept. 28 along with two of the station's current inhabitants - Williams and Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, who have been on the station since April.

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