MOSCOW – Russia launched an unmanned cargo ship to the international space station Sunday, a day after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia threw future missions to the orbiting complex in doubt.
The Progress M-47 lifted off atop a Soyuz-U rocket from the Russian-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:59 p.m. It entered orbit a few minutes later, said an official at Russian mission control outside Moscow.
The craft is scheduled to dock with the station Tuesday and deliver fuel, equipment, food and mail for the crew.
The long-planned launch came as stunned Russian space officials offered condolences for the astronauts -- six Americans and one Israeli -- killed when the Columbia disintegrated shortly before it was to have landed Saturday morning.
They said the disaster may put Moscow's cash-strapped space program under more pressure to deliver crews and supplies to the station.
"Cosmonauts and astronauts are one big family, and I personally -- and I believe all my colleagues -- are suffering this like a personal loss," cosmonaut Yuri Usachev, who commanded the space station's second crew in 2001, said on TVS television.
"I believe yesterday's tragedy will have a big influence on the future of the international space station," he said. "Probably for a certain amount of time, the accent will shift to Russian systems of delivery of cargo and crews."
NASA plans had called for expanding the space station during five shuttle flights this year, but space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said Saturday that flights would be put on hold until officials determine what caused the Columbia to break up.
A spokesman for the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos, Sergei Gorbunov, said that during the investigation, "work in orbit will be carried out in a truncated regime," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Crews "can conduct various scientific experiments, but you can forget about further construction on the station until the resumption of American shuttle launches," Gorbunov said.
Russian space officials have said they are ready to pick up some of the slack in the meantime with their own spacecraft, including manned Soyuz TMA capsules, but that more would need to be built and funds are scarce.
"There is no reserve of Soyuz spacecraft at the moment," the Interfax news agency quoted Gorbunov as saying. He said that if NASA plans to use Russian craft for manned missions to the space station, "it will have to buy Russian Soyuz TMAs" and that new craft would take two years to build.
Russia builds two of the spacecraft each year, he said, but if shuttles are grounded, "more spacecraft might be needed to maintain the crew and transport cargo."
According to TVS and ITAR-Tass, Russia now has two Soyuz craft -- which, unlike the shuttles, cannot be used more than once.
Russia normally sends a Soyuz up to the station twice a year as a fresh escape capsule, with its Russian-led crew making a short visit and returning to Earth in the old craft.
Gorbunov said Sunday that the next such mission, planned for April, might be sent up unmanned to avoid depleting the food supply for the permanent crew, Interfax reported.
Shuttles can carry payloads of 110 tons, while Russian Progress supply ships -- like the one launched Sunday -- can carry no more than 5.5 tons, Interfax reported.
After dumping its Mir space station in 2001, the Russian space program concentrated its meager resources on the 16-nation international space station, a U.S.-led project. Russia has earned money by taking "space tourists" to the station.
Russian Foreign Minster Igor Ivanov called Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday to express condolences, the Foreign Ministry said Sunday. Also Saturday, President Vladimir Putin called President Bush and sent a telegram to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a few Russians placed brightly colored flowers on a snowbank Sunday morning.