- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Russian, an American and Italian are scheduled to blast off tonight on a trip to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft launched from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

If things go as planned, the Russian and American will host the Space Shuttle Discovery crew when it visits in late May.

The three-man crew consists of Russian commander Sergei Krikalev, American John Phillips and Italian Roberto Vittori. Mr. Vittori is a temporary visitor and will return to Earth in a week with American Leroy Chiao and Russian Salizhan Sharipov, who are currently residing on the International Space Station.

Mr. Krikalev and Mr. Phillips will be responsible for taking photographs of Discovery as it performs a back flip to display its thermal-protection system to the space station. They will have just 90 seconds to take photos of Discovery’s belly.

The photos will be transmitted to Mission Control, where scientists will study them to see if there is any unexpected damage. A damaged thermal-protection system on the Space Shuttle Columbia led to its destruction during its re-entry in 2003.

?We’ll have the privilege and challenge of being there for the shuttle return to flight, for STS-114 in May and for STS-121 in July,? Mr. Phillips said. ?This is going to be a wonderful moment for NASA and the international partnership. We’ve got a lot of work to do for the shuttle return to flight.?

Mr. Krikalev is familiar with hosting shuttle visits. On his previous space station mission, three shuttles visited, including the one that brought him back to Earth.

Mr. Krikalev already has a year and five months in space. He flew a five-month stay on Russia’s Mir space station in 1988, and an 11-month stay in 1991 and 1992. He became the first Russian to fly on the shuttle in 1994, and flew on the shuttle again in 1998 as part of the first crew to assemble space station pieces.

Mr. Krikalev’s most recent spaceflight was in 2000 to 2001 as a member of the first three-member crew to live on the space station. With an additional six months planned for this spaceflight, he will have a total of 23 months in space, making him the world’s most experienced space traveler.

Mr. Krikalev recognizes that setting a record comes with risks. ?We’re concerned about radiation exposure, and that’s not the only one,? he said. ?We’re concerned with bone-mass loss; we’re concerned with changing blood cells.?

Mr. Krikalev’s 11-month stay on Mir led to false reports that he was ?stranded? in space with no way to come home. What actually happened was he was asked to extend his planned five-month stay because of budget problems for the Russian space agency.

Mr. Phillips flew on a 12-day shuttle mission in 2000. He was the oldest rookie astronaut selected by NASA, after a career as a Navy aviator and a scientist working on the international Ulysses mission to study the sun.

Mr. Vittori flew aboard a Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station in 2002. He will be duplicating that experience on this flight — flying up on one Soyuz and returning to Earth on another.

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