Engineers rolled a Russian spaceship out to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Tuesday, taking the final steps to prepare for a crew's upcoming mission to the international space station.
Workers moved the Soyuz rocket, topped with its TMA-8 crew capsule, on train rails from its assembly site only 48 hours before it is to hurtle from the Central Asian steppe into space. The craft will carry Russian Pavel Vinogradov, American Jeff Williams and Brazil's first astronaut, Marcos Cesar Pontes.
Liftoff from Baikonur is scheduled for Thursday morning (9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday). The mission will include experiments designed to see how humans react to prolonged space travel.
"We can return to the moon and ultimately to Mars," Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy manager for the space station, said as he described how the knowledge gleaned from the experiments would be used.
The American space program has largely depended on Russian Soyuz and Progress craft to ferry its astronauts and supplies to the orbiting space station since the 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet. Though the shuttle Discovery visited the station on a test mission in July, troubles with foam insulation on its external fuel tank have cast doubt on when the shuttle will fly again.
Shireman said the United States would continue to rely on Soyuz to make its twice-yearly missions to the space station, despite a shuttle flight scheduled for July.
‘World Cup final’ for Brazil
During a pre-launch news conference Wednesday, Pontes told reporters that he planned to take his national soccer team’s shirt into space, to bring the players luck in this June’s World Cup.
Pontes is due to spend 10 days in space, traveling up to the station with Vinogradov and Williams — then coming back down with the crew they are replacing, American Bill McArthur and Russian Valery Tokarev, who have been in orbit for six months.
"It’s like the World Cup final and Brazil is playing," Pontes’ 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 NASA space shuttle in 2001, but the flight was postponed for financial reasons. After the Columbia tragedy, Pontes' mission was put off indefinitely.
"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."
This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.