Russia Sends Astronauts Back to Space after Mishaps
Russia on Monday successfully launched three astronauts for the International Space Station, boosting morale after accidents raised doubt about the reliability of its space program.
The launch of two Russians and an American on a Soyuz-FG rocket had been delayed for almost two months after a unmanned Russian Progress supply ship in August crashed into Siberia shortly after its launch on a similar rocket.
The problems eroded faith in Russia's status as a space superpower just as it had taken the responsibility for being the sole nation capable of taking humans to the ISS after the retirement of the US shuttle in July.
The morning launch of the Soyuz lit up the grey skies over Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in the steppes of Kazakhstan which was covered in an early fall of snow, an Agence France Presse correspondent reported.
"Everything is normal and we are feeling fine," the crew reported back to mission control over the radio. Mission control reported that the Soyuz TMA-22 capsule had successfully gone into Earth orbit.
American Dan Burbank and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin are due to dock with the ISS at 0533 GMT on Wednesday, joining three crews on board.
The lift-off from Baikonur was the first manned launch since the retirement of the U.S. shuttle and the crash of the Progress, Russia's worst space mishap in years.
The Soyuz-U rocket that failed to take the Progress to orbit is closely related to the Soyuz-FG that is used for manned launches and Russia temporarily grounded its entire arsenal of the Soyuz rockets after the accident.
It also prompted a wholesale rejig of the timetable for staffing the space station and Monday's launch had originally been scheduled to take place in September.
Russian scientists are also bracing for the likely loss of the Phobos-Grunt probe for Mars which was launched on November 9 but has failed to head out of Earth orbit on its course to the red planet.
As well as the Progress and possibly Phobos-Grunt, Russia has lost three navigation satellites, an advanced military satellite and a telecommunications satellite due to faulty launches in the past 12 months.
The last manned launch from Baikonur was in June, and the problems were a major disappointment for Russia in the year marking half a century since Yuri Gagarin made man's first voyage into space from the same historic cosmodrome.
"We have no 'dark' thoughts," Shkaplerov said a day ahead of the launch. "We have confidence in our technology," he said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
Shkaplerov said Russia's space chiefs had personally provided assurances to the spacemen about the extent of security measures.
"Checks have been strengthened. Cameras have been installed everywhere, in all the sections. Everything is checked three times before going up into space," he added.
The Soyuz rocket design first flew in the late 1960s and has been the backbone of the Soviet and then Russian space programs ever since.
Its reputation was dented by the failure of the Progress to reach orbit but the Soyuz system for manned space flight has a proud safety record, with Russia boasting that its simplicity has allowed it to outlive the shuttle.
Whereas NASA endured the fatal loss of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles in 1986 and 2003, Moscow has not suffered a fatality in space since the crew of Soyuz-11 died in 1971 in their capsule when returning to Earth.