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An American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts are poised to launch to the International Space Station tonight on a Russian rocket.
The trio is slated to lift off Thursday (Oct. 7) at 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT) from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome. The spaceflyers will ride a new model of the tried-and-true Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the TMA-01M, which features new guidance, navigation, control and data processing systems, and an improved cooling device for the electronics.
The crew is launching just days after the 53rd anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite, which occurred on Oct. 4, 1957. Indeed, their Soyuz will even blast off from the very same launch pad.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonauts Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka are set to take up long-term posts as members of the station's Expedition 25 crew. Kelly has a twin brother, Mark, who is also an astronaut and is due to fly aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on the STS-134 mission in February.
The new station crew is set to dock at the orbiting outpost's rooftop Poisk module on Saturday at 8:02 p.m. EDT (0002 GMT Sunday). They will join the outpost's existing Expedition 25 crew – station commander Doug Wheelock of NASA and flight engineers Fyodor Yurchikhin of Russia and Shannon Walker of NASA. [Video: NASA's Identical Twin Astronauts]
In November, half of the station's crew will return to Earth and Kelly will take command of the outpost to begin the Expedition 26 mission.
"It's a real privilege to be part of this crew and to be part of something that has been such a successful program to date – the International Space Station," Kelly said during a recent press briefing. "We're finishing up the assembly of the space station and it's really time to start ramping up the science we do."
During their mission, the crew will participate in a wide array of research, including fundamental physics, biometric experiments and investigations of crystal growth in space, as well as education outreach.
Kelly and Kaleri are both veteran spaceflyers -- Kelly flew on two space shuttle missions and Kaleri has traveled to space four times before -- while Skripochka is making his first spaceflight.
"I'm looking forward to my first spaceflight," Skripochka told SPACE.com in a preflight interview. "Especially because the program for our flight is full of many events."
The crew is scheduled to oversee the visits of two shuttle flights -- the February 2011 trip of Endeavour, plus an earlier flight by the space shuttle Discovery in November. During their tenure, the station will also host two unmanned cargo ship visits – one from Europe and one from Japan.
The overlap of Endeavour's flight and the Expedition 26 mission means that the Kelly astronaut twins will likely rendezvous in space.
"I feel pretty confident that we'll meet in space," Scott Kelly said. "On a personal level, it will be great to have two shuttles visit while I'm up there. Having my brother on the last one will make it even more special."
Mark Kelly's shuttle flight is currently the last scheduled shuttle mission, though Congress recently passed a bill to approve one more flight before the fleet is retired.
Between managing the space traffic, up-keeping the station and conducting research, the spaceflyers will have their work cut out for them. Plus, they have to deal with some occasional culture clash.
"Even though we bring different cultures and different schools of thought and different backgrounds to the work, you have to learn and evolve with time how to work together with the partners," Kaleri said. "This is not just the most difficult but probably the most interesting part of the job as well."
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