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updated 2/20/2004 3:25:25 PM ET 2004-02-20T20:25:25

The next crew to visit the International Space Station (ISS) are rushing toward a spring launch date after being officially assigned to the mission earlier this month.

The two members of ISS Expedition 9 and a temporary astronaut visitor from the European Space Agency (ESA) are set for an April 18 (EDT) launch from the Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Expedition 9 crew, originally slated for a later mission this fall, said they are ready for the tasks ahead.

"It wasn’t completely all of a sudden," said Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, the mission’s commander, of the upcoming launch date. "So there are no worries or surprises with us."

During their time aboard ISS, the Expedition 9 crew will conduct extravehicular activities to install audio equipment, as well laser reflectors, antennas and a television camera that will ready the ISS to receive an Autonomous Transfer Vehicle (ATV) under development by ESA. Once complete, the upgrades should lighten the workload on Russian Progress supply ships by allowing ESA spacecraft to dock with ISS, Padalka said.

In addition to their traditional station keeping chores and life science experiments, Expedition 9 will also make use if a new advanced ultrasound instrument that will monitor the internal organs of crew members to better understand the effects of living in space for long periods.

"The biggest goal for us as a group is to keep the ISS in an operational condition and maintain a human presence," Padalka said.

Changes in crew
The assignment of Padalka and NASA astronaut Michael Fincke, who will serve as the mission’s flight engineer and science officer, is the second crew change for Expedition 9. The original crew lineup selected in 2003, astronaut William McArthur Jr. and cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, was adjusted in January due to a temporary medical condition that affected McArthur’s long-duration flight qualifications, NASA said.

Expedition 9 backup astronaut Leroy Chiao was then assigned in McArthur’s place, but expedition planners opted to keep him and McArthur with their original crew partners since they have spent years training together. Russian space officials said the decision to switch the crew arose due to the development of a "psychological incompatibility" between Chiao and Tokarev. Padalka and Fincke have known each other for four years and trained together as backup crews for both Expedition 4 and 5.

A colonel in the Russian Air Force, Padalka is a veteran to long-duration space flight, spending 198 days aboard the Mir space station in 1999. The Emsworth, Pennsylvania-native Fincke, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, will be making his first trip into space.

"I’m an eight-year space rookie," said Fincke jokingly. "It seemed like I was the perennial back-up."

Riding up with the Expedition 9 crew is ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands. Kuipers will spend eight days conducting life science experiments aboard ISS under a commercial agreement between ESA and the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos. He will return with the Expedition 8 crew members, NASA’s Michael Foale and cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, on April 28.

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