March 29, 2006

Brazil’s First Spaceman Packs Soccer Team Shirt

By Michael Steen

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- Brazil's first cosmonaut said on Wednesday he planned to take his national soccer team's shirt into space to bring them luck in this June's World Cup when he blasts off in a Russian spacecraft.

Marcos Pontes, a 43-year-old Brazilian Air Force pilot, is due to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Soyuz TMA spacecraft on Thursday from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

"To commemorate the six times champions of the world that the Brazilian football team will become this year, I'm taking the Brazilian soccer team shirt," Pontes told a news conference.

He is accompanying Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams to the ISS and will return to Earth 10 days after launch with American Bill McArthur and Russian Valery Tokarev, who have been in orbit for six months.

"It's like the World Cup final and Brazil are playing," Pontes's doctor, Luiz Claudio Lutiis Silveira Martins, said on the steps of "Area 17," the building where cosmonauts stay before their launch. "This is a historical moment for Brazil."

Pontes said he would also take the Brazilian flag with him, along with some items to commemorate the first flight 100 years ago of countryman Alberto Santos-Dumont, seen in Brazil as the father of aviation.

"About being the first Brazilian: it's a very good feeling but a great responsibility also," he said, adding he was conscious that he would become a role model.


Pontes spoke to reporters with Williams and Vinogradov from behind a glass wall to protect them from germs ahead of their launch. He had dreamed since childhood of becoming an astronaut and joined the NASA training program in the late 1990s.

He had been scheduled to fly aboard a U.S. Space Shuttle in 2001 but the flight was postponed for financial reasons and later put off indefinitely when NASA grounded its Shuttle fleet after the Shuttle Columbia burned up returning to Earth in 2003.

"I want to thank the Brazilian Air Force ... who taught me how to pursue an objective. If someone gives you a mission, you go until the end, independently of problems that you have," he said. "Persistence is the word I'd like people to remember."

Following the grounding of the Shuttle fleet, Russia has borne sole responsibility for ferrying crews back and forth to the space station on board Soyuz spacecraft, which have proven safer than the Shuttle despite their 1960s heritage.

Engineers at Baikonur, a once-secret sprawling complex of launch pads, factories and assembly plants in the Kazakh steppe, rolled out Soyuz TMA-8 early on Tuesday ahead of Thursday's launch at 06:30 Moscow time (0230 GMT).

The Russian, U.S. and Brazilian flags have been painted on the side.

"Pontes is very popular in Brazil," Loiva Calderan, an official from the Brazilian Space Agency said. "All the people, all 200 million people in Brazil, will be watching on TV and see Pontes fly into space."