A Russian spacecraft filled in for the second time since U.S. shuttle program was grounded this year after the Columbia disaster, delivering a three-man crew Monday to the international space station. A top Russian space official warned, however, that funding problems could jeopardize future missions.
InsertArt(2046849)AMERICAN MICHAEL Foale, Russia’s Alexander Kaleri and Spain’s Pedro Duque entered the space station after the autopilot docking of their spacecraft, two days after the Soyuz blasted off from Kazakhstan.
Applause broke out at Russia’s Mission Control Center just outside Moscow after the docking.
“I congratulate all our partners on this spectacular success today,” William Readdy, NASA’s head of human spaceflight, said at a news conference.
The docking went flawlessly despite a minor malfunction in the Soyuz engine’s pipeline system that was spotted Sunday. The glitch prompted Russian flight controllers to switch to a backup system for the docking, said Yuri Semyonov, director of Energia, the company that builds Russian spacecraft.
Readdy, a veteran of three shuttle missions, told The Associated Press that the glitch was “nothing serious.”
Since Columbia disintegrated while returning to Earth on Feb. 1, the U.S. human spaceflight program has been on hold, leaving Russia’s non-reusable Soyuz capsules as the only means for getting crew to and from the station. Russia’s unmanned Progress spaceships also ferry supplies to the space station.
Earlier this year, Russian space officials urged NASA and the European Space Agency to help fund the Soyuz capsules’ construction, but they also reminded Moscow of its earlier pledge to conduct several crew rotations.
The Russian government has finally promised to build the ships independently, but Semyonov complained Monday that it had failed to deliver the promised funds. He said that Energia was forced to borrow money to build spacecraft this year and had to freeze assembly of the spacecraft for future missions.
“The financial situation is catastrophic,” Semyonov said. He lashed out at the Americans and the Europeans, saying that they “stood aside while Russia was carrying the entire burden alone.”
Nikolai Moiseyev, first deputy director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, said that the government would come up with the necessary funds shortly.
Readdy said NASA would work to return the shuttle to space as quickly as it can. “The full potential of this international space station can’t come true without continuous assembly and use of the space shuttle,” he said.
Foale and Kaleri are the eighth crew to have flown to the station for long-term occupation since Nov. 2, 2000. There also have been four short-term missions using Soyuz craft.
Duque is to remain aboard the station for eight days before returning to Earth with American Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who have been aboard since April 28.
Malenchenko will become the first person to have left the planet single and return to a wife. He was married in August while in orbit.
Foale and Kaleri are set to remain at the station for about 200 days. Foale will become the first American to have served on both the international space station and its Russian predecessor, the Mir.
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