With only days to spare before the International Space Station (ISS) would have been left without a crew, two Russian cosmonauts and a veteran NASA astronaut blasted off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket late Sunday for a two-day trip to the orbital outpost.
Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and Daniel Burbank had originally planned to launch two months ago, but the failure of an upper-stage motor on a Progress cargo ship delayed their mission.
The Progress motor is virtually identical to one used on the Soyuz booster.
The 11:14 p.m. EST launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan took place as the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) was trying to salvage an ambitious Mars mission. The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is stranded in orbit around Earth after a different kind of upper-stage engine failed to to fire and send the spacecraft on its way to the Martian moon Phobos, where it was to collect soil samples and return them to Earth.
The Progress motor problem was believed to be caused by contamination in the fuel line. Managers sharpened inspection and quality control procedures and successfully launched another Progress cargo ship to the station on Oct. 30.
That led the way for the launching Sunday night of a crew to replace the trio of astronauts due to leave the outpost on Nov. 22. Another three astronauts and cosmonauts are scheduled to blast off on Dec. 22, bringing the station back up to full staffing.
The station, a $100 billion research complex orbiting 240 miles above the planet, has been permanently staffed since the arrival of the first crew 11 years ago.
Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank will have to hit the proverbial ground runnng. "I think the hardest thing for us will be to quickly adapt and take the most advantage we can of the short couple of days we'll have on board with (departing station crewmembers) Sergei (Volkov), Mike (Fossum) and Satoshi (Furukawa), Burbank said.
"But I think we made good progress before this, spending a lot of time talking with them ... and we've done a lot of the handover work with them ahead of time. I anticipate it'll be a challenge for us, but we've got a big team on the ground ... and I think everything will be successful," he said.
Burbank and his crew are scheduled to arrive at the station at 12:33 a.m. EST on Wednesday.