December 22, 2004

Russia Set for Crucial ISS Cargo Flight

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia made final preparations for a crucial cargo flight to the International Space Station, whose two-man crew is running out of food and will have to be evacuated if the supply mission is aborted.

The Progress M-51 vessel, which is to bring water, oxygen and food to the ISS, was wheeled out to the launch-pad of the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a spokesman for Russia's space agency Rosaviakosmos told ITAR-TASS news agency.

The supply ship is scheduled to take off from Baikonur early on Friday.

If the take-off is annulled or aborted, Russian and US cosmonauts Salizhan Sharipov and Leroy Chiao will require emergency evacuation as their supplies are due to run out by mid-January.

Russia's TsUP space mission control agency said the two-man crew could be evacuated aboard the Soyuz capsule, a re-entry vehicle attached to the ISS for just such a purpose.

For planning purposes only, a date had been set of December 30 for such an operation, should it prove necessary.

The cargo ship powered by a Soyuz rocket will transport two and a half tonnes of supplies, which will also include Christmas presents for the ISS crew. The launch is scheduled for 1:19 a.m. Friday (2219 GMT Thursday).

Earlier this month, Russian space officials announced that the ISS crew was slowly running out of food and could have nothing left to eat within a matter of weeks.

The space station, which had been supplied by US space shuttles until the February 2003 Columbia disaster, is now only supplied by Russian craft, which have a much smaller cargo capacity.

The Russian space agency said supplies would last until mid-January, making it crucial that a Russian cargo ship goes off without a hitch as scheduled on December 24.

"In this situation, any launch... is very important for the station and the crew," a Rosaviakosmos official said.


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