June 6, 2011

Soyuz Spacecraft Updated And Ready For Launch

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which has been given some much needed updating, was lifted into launch position on Sunday in preparation for a launch to the International Space Station (ISS) this week, reports the Associated Press (AP).

With the US shuttle program scheduled for a farewell voyage in July, the Russian craft takes on renewed importance as the only available lifeline to space.

An international crew comprised of Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, NASA's Michael Fossum and Satoshi Furukawa of Japan's JAXA space agency is prepared to launch this week for a six-month tour of duty aboard the orbiting laboratory.

This new model of the Soyuz craft first blasted off in October from Baikonur, the site of all of Russia's space launches in the nation of Kazakhstan. Russian engineers have modernized the operating control system to the craft lighter and therefore able to carry up more cargo.

"It's like if you compare a car or a vehicle from 10 years ago, the next generation of vehicles are going to be improved, more efficient and have more capability," Patrick Buzzard, NASA's representative to Russia, told AP.

Although a few minor glitches were registered on the new Soyuz, officials say those have now been resolved. "There were some software issues that they had the crew in orbit repair last time," said Peggy Whitson, chief of the astronaut corps at NASA. "The next version will have different software, so they won't have the same issue."

Launches from Baikonur are subject to rigorous timing that is a hallmark of Russian space officials. The Soyuz TMA-02M craft began its slow trek through the tinder-dry Kazakh landscape to the launch pad on a flatbed train just before 7 a.m. local time.

The rocket was carried horizontally to the pad and then slowly lifted into place as relatives of the astronauts and officials looked on and took photographs.

Hauling out the rocket to the pad takes two hours, but the wait is usually livened up by traditional customs typical to Baikonur. Under newly appointed Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) head Vladimir Popovkin, the atmosphere has become more sedate, however.

One tradition that visitors were forbidden from observing on this occasion was the laying down of coins on the railway track to be flattened and preserved as good luck keepsakes.

It will be several years before NASA replaces its shuttle fleet with the next generation of lift vehicles. This leaves it reliant on the Russian space program to transport its personnel to and from the ISS.

The California-based space transportation company SpaceX is developing a civilian-operated vehicle called the Dragon. NASA hopes could also offer it another, possibly less costly alternative to operating in orbit.

SpaceX scored a major success in December, when its Dragon capsule made the world's first private trip to and from orbit. But Russian officials signaled earlier this year that they could resist the commercial rival by refusing it permission to dock with the ISS.

The $56 million price that the Russian Space Agency charges NASA to send up astronauts is set to go up to $63 million. A recent contract extension with the agency totaled $753 million and covered trips for a dozen NASA astronauts from 2014 through 2016.


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