Image: Sergei Volkov, Oleg Kononenko
Russia's Federal Space Agency cosmonauts Sergei Volkov, left, and Oleg Kononenko will serve as Expedition 17's commander and flight engineer, respectively.
updated 1/16/2008 1:02:56 PM ET 2008-01-16T18:02:56

Two Russian cosmonauts and South Korea’s first astronaut are gearing up for a planned April launch to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cosmonaut commander Sergei Volkov and flight engineer Oleg Kononenko will serve as the core of the space station’s Expedition 17 crew when they arrive at the orbital lab this spring. South Korea’s Ko San, an artificial intelligence expert, will accompany them to usher his country into the realm of human spaceflight.

“We are bringing a lot of experiments,” Ko told reporters in a Tuesday briefing, adding that it was an honor to serve as his nation’s first spaceflyer. “I hope that it will be successful so that we can continue the program into the future.”

Ko and the Expedition 17 crew are slated to launch toward the ISS on April 8 from the Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft. The launch will kick off a planned six-month mission for Volkov and Kononenko, who represent Russia's Federal Space Agency and will make their first career spaceflights during Expedition 17. A series of NASA astronauts will rotate out as Expedition 17 crewmembers during the spaceflight.

“We have all trained together for a really long time,” said Volkov, who is a second-generation cosmonaut as the son of veteran spaceflyer Alexander Volkov. “We are, all of us, well-motivated (people) and we want to perform our flight as successful as it is possible to do.”

The Expedition 17 cosmonauts will relieve the station’s current caretakers — Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko — who are in the midst of their own six-month mission to the ISS. The third member of their crew, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, is expected to launch to the station before Volkov and Kononenko as part of the agency’s STS-123 flight to deliver a robotic arm addition and the first segment of Japan’s three-part Kibo laboratory to the ISS.

Ko will spend about nine days aboard the ISS before returning to Earth with the Expedition 16 crew. He was chosen from a field of some 36,000 applicants to serve as South Korea’s first astronaut and perform 18 experiments aboard the space station, Ko said. Yi Soo-yeon, a female mechanical engineer, will serve as Ko’s backup for the spaceflight.

Volkov and Kononenko hope to preside over the April arrival of another robotic arm and a large pressurized module for the Kibo lab, and look forward to the planned September delivery of new equipment that will allow the station to support larger, six-person crews. Two planned shuttle flights, aimed at launching on April 24 and Sept. 18, respectively, will each ferry a new U.S. crewmate to the ISS.

Reisman will replace NASA astronaut Dan Tani when his shuttle flight launches in mid-March.

NASA’s repeated delays to its upcoming STS-122 mission — to launch no earlier than Feb. 7 after fuel sensor glitches thwarted a December liftoff — have cut Reisman’s mission about a month short. He initially hoped to launch to the station on Feb. 14 before NASA rescheduled the space shot to March, but dealing with unexpected changes is part of the job, he said.

Fellow U.S. spaceflyer Gregory Chamitoff, meanwhile, will relieve Reisman during the April shuttle mission while crewmate Sandra Magnus — the only veteran spaceflyer of the entire Expedition 17 crew — plans to join the spaceflight in September and stay on for part of the next ISS mission.

“They’re all rookies and they have not flown in space yet,” said Magnus, who helped deliver part of the station’s backbone-like main truss during NASA’s STS-112 shuttle flight in 2002. “But by the time I arrive, they’ll all have more time in space than I do.”

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