- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan U.S. astronaut Edward Lu plans to don a badge from the Columbia mission when he blasts off today in a Russian rocket, the first manned launch since the disaster.

Mr. Lu said the mission to the international space station is not only filling the gap left by suspended shuttle flights it's paying tribute to Columbia's seven astronauts.

The shuttle disintegrated over Texas in February. All aboard were killed.

"We are doing what I think they would have wanted and what their families would have wanted us to do continue the process of flying into space," Mr. Lu said yesterday.

Russian and U.S. experts have scrambled to get Expedition 7 ready in record time. To many, the mission is seen as a firm commitment that the $60 billion station will not be abandoned.

Without the U.S. shuttles, the Soyuz and Russia's unmanned Progress cargo ship are the only links to the orbiting outpost.

"Everything has been done to ensure the success of this flight program," said Yuri Semyonov, the chief director of RKK Energiya, the company that builds the Soyuz TMA-2, an updated version of the longest-serving manned spacecraft in the world.

U.S. and Russian officials have said the launch will be a testament to the new, cooperative relationship between the former Cold War foes, who once viewed space as the ultimate battleground.

American and Russian flags were flying side by side from Launch Pad 1. NASA officials were to be in the grandstand alongside their Russian counterparts to toast one another with glasses of cognac after the spacecraft soars above the barren Kazakh steppe.

The commander of the mission is Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. Mr. Lu and Mr. Malenchenko have teamed up before: In 2000, the two flew to the space station to help prepare it for its permanent crew and took a spacewalk together to hook up exterior cables.

Mr. Lu and Mr. Malenchenko will replace U.S. astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, who have been in space since November. They will return to Earth in early May in a Soyuz already docked to the station.

Their return will mark the first time U.S. astronauts have used a Russian rocket to return to Earth.

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