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Space station crew orbits into the new year

From An American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut are thinking positive as they zoom from 2003 into 2004.
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Following a chaotic year for NASA's human spaceflight program, 2003 ends on a hopeful note for the new year as an astronaut and a cosmonaut continue fly high aboard the International Space Station.

The Expedition 8 crew of Michael Foale and Alexander Kaleri will celebrate the new year by offering greetings to people on the ground they contact via amateur radio.

"The good thing about New Year's Eve or New Year's Day is, it's a moment in time that is happening throughout the world for 24 hours," Foale told on Tuesday. "And so each time zone that I have any contact with, that reaches New Year's Day, I will be thinking about them and if possible speaking with them."

In Russia, New Year's Day is a major family holiday that often sees families and friends visiting each other, as well as a late-night dinner and a dance. In the morning, children wake up early to look for presents under a decorated tree, Kaleri explained.

"We cannot go visit nor can we receive guests at the station, so probably we'll visit each other in our respective segments," Kaleri said.

Watching for fireworks
Foale said he would be keeping an eye out for signs of celebrations, such as giant fireworks displays over major cities. The pair would especially like to see the display over Red Square in Moscow, but their flight path isn't expected to cooperate.

The pair already have enjoyed a pleasant Christmas on the station, with Foale confirming that Santa Claus was able to visit the outpost while the crew slept on Christmas Eve.

"He was able to sneak on board and he was pretty good to us," Foale said. "He was a little bit limited by weight constraints. He couldn't carry too much with him this time. It was nice to have something from home and something from my children."

Conservation on the station
Meanwhile, Foale and Kaleri report that overall everything is going well with space station Alpha, despite some technical problems and the ever-present desire to conserve supplies while the shuttle fleet remains grounded.

"It's much less dramatic than that," Foale said, explaining that immediately after the Feb. 1 loss of Columbia the Expedition 6 crew that was at the space station then immediately began conserving their supplies.

"There's an awful lot of food here that we've had to eat up from Expedition 6, and there's a lot of clothing that we're wondering what to do with," Foale said.

Foale said that the water supply was in good shape "in a general sense" and that despite some problems with the Russian oxygen-generating system, the air quality remains good.

"I don't consider this any more difficult or serious of a regime than if we had a normal supply running with a space shuttle visiting regularly," Foale said.

In the absence of NASA's shuttle fleet, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency has stepped up to the plate with its Soyuz spacecraft for crew transfer and Progress freighters for carrying cargo.

Russian government funding for the Soyuz and Progress vehicles seems to ride a roller coaster of support each year, but so far the Russians are continuing their commitment to the space station.

"One would like to hope that the financing of our sector would be sufficient to maintain the normal working ability of the station and ensure the appropriate cargo flow," Kaleri said.

Replacement parts grounded
The grounded shuttle fleet also is preventing launch of replacement parts for the U.S. system that helps keep the station pointed in the right direction as it orbits the Earth.

That system relies on four gyroscopes, two of which have failed. The system can work with only two operational gyros but requires help from Russian steering jets. If another gyro fails, the Russian system will be the only means of pointing the station, and there is only so much fuel on board.

Foale acknowledged the problem but said, "It's not a safety issue, it's more of an operational issue."

"We have not discussed it with Bill Gerstenmaier, the program manager. That hasn't been a topic of conversation, and that basically reflects the fact that I don't have any concern about it. Maybe I should, but Bill has not brought it up with us. He would if he had a concern," Foale said.