Rocket Launches to Relieve Space Station

A Russian rocket carrying two cosmonauts and an American astronaut to the international space station (search) lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome on Thursday.

For Russians Salizhan Sharipov and Yuri Shargin and American Leroy Chiao (search), it was the first mission in a Soyuz spacecraft (search) — breaking the nearly 30-year tradition of having at least one crewman with previous experience in piloting the capsule.

Chiao and Sharipov both have flown U.S. space shuttles, while Shargin is a rookie.

The Soyuz TMA-5 spacecraft lifted off from the steppe of Kazakhstan at 7:06 Moscow time and entered orbit less than 10 minutes later.

"The crew reached orbit and the parameters are normal," Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov told reporters in Korolyov, outside Moscow. "We are in for two days of quiet, energetic work."

The spaceship is due to dock with the station at 8:17 a.m. Moscow time — 12:17 a.m. EDT on Saturday.

Since the mid-1970s, Soviet and Russian space crews always have included a cosmonaut with previous pilot experience to ensure a smooth ride. The tradition has been broken because several veteran cosmonauts have resigned in recent years and the space agency hasn't had enough seats on recent Soyuz missions to train their replacements, said Yuri Grigoryev, a spokesman for Russia's Cosmonaut Training Center.

"It's not a problem. We simply need to adapt to new conditions," he said.

Soyuz spacecraft are guided by autopilot on their approach to the station and during the docking, but the crew is trained to operate it manually in case of computer failure.

Nikolai Moiseyev, a deputy director of Russia's Federal Space Agency, scoffed at a question about the crew's lack of Soyuz experience. "Yuri Gagarin's flight was also his first," he snapped, referring to the Russian who in 1961 became the first man to fly in space. "Our training methods are reliable and give us full confidence."

The grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet following the Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia disaster has left Russian spacecraft as the sole link to the 16-nation station. One of three seats on the latest Soyuz missions was assigned to a U.S. astronaut.

In order to earn some extra cash, the underfunded Russian space agency has also sold several seats to European astronauts or space tourists.

The mission's launch has been delayed twice because of technical malfunctions. It initially was set for last Saturday, but officials pushed it back after the accidental detonation of one of the explosive bolts used to separate the ship's various components.

The launch had to be delayed again when a tank with hydrogen peroxide burst because of a sudden change in pressure, said Yuri Semyonov, the head of the RKK Energia company, which built the Soyuz.

Semyonov said the faulty equipment had been replaced and neither of the two glitches could affect flight safety.

"All these malfunctions were eliminated from the start. We don't tend to fly to space on broken spacecraft," Solovyov, the Mission Control chief, said Thursday.

After arriving at the station, a crucial task for the crew will be to fix a broken generator that makes oxygen from waste water. Previous repair efforts have failed, and the new crew is bringing spare parts.

Oxygen supplies on the station are running out, and U.S. space officials have warned that if Russians fail to launch the next Progress cargo ship by late December to replenish them, the station may have to be left unmanned temporarily.

During the six-month mission, the new crew also is set to conduct experiments to research new AIDS vaccines, study plant growth and conduct at least two space walks.