February 8, 2006

Brazil’s First Astronaut Readies for Space Launch

By Meg Clothier

STAR CITY, Russia -- Brazil's first astronaut is ready for his voyage into space next month despite the challenges of the Russian language, the Moscow winter and hungry Siberian bears.

Marcos Pontes, 42, will fly to the International Space Station with a Russian-U.S. crew, returning with the outgoing crew some 10 days later to what is sure to be a hero's welcome at home.

"If Brazil was a person, I would embrace it," Pontes, a former test pilot, told a news briefing at Russia's space training center near Moscow on Wednesday.

"I am a religious person and I am taking religious symbols on the flight. But most important is what I have in my heart," he said.

Pontes, who speaks good English, seemed to understand questions in Russian but answered in his own language: "We can communicate. Of course in three months it's not possible to master a rich, complex language like Russian."

But he has warmed to the weather -- Moscow's coldest winter in a generation.

"I have adapted well to the cold, I even like it. I am lucky I got to experience a real Russian winter," he said.

The deal taking Pontes into space, signed while Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was visiting the Kremlin in October, could earn Russia as much as $20 million.

He will fly with the Russian Commander Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. Flight Engineer Jeffrey Williams, who will become the station's 13th live-aboard crew.

"I am not superstitious: the number 13 is lucky for me. It just goes between 12 and 14," Vinogradov said.

Another man -- European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter -- should join them in orbit with the launch of NASA's next space shuttle flight, targeted for May.

NASA grounded its shuttle fleet in July after failing to fix a technical problem that killed seven astronauts in 2003. Now Russian spacecraft bear the responsibility for shipping crew and supplies to the station.

The crew, dressed in identical bright blue overalls with their national flags stitched to their left shoulders, are now nearing the end of an intense period of training.

"Literally 20 minutes ago we finished training on the Soyuz simulator, where we analyzed lots of emergency situations," said Vinogradov.

One reporter wondered whether the crew were prepared for a crash landing in eastern Siberia -- what would they do if a bear attacked?

"The training includes all eventualities ... even the sort you describe," countered Pontes. "But I still haven't seen a single bear here."