The spacecraft Soyuz TM-31 with US astronaut William Shepherd and his Russian counterparts Sergei Krikaljow and Yuri Gidsenko took off in the thick morning fog, as planned, from the Baikonur Russian spaceport in Kazakhstan's steppe. Barely ten minutes after the start, the capsule reached its intended orbit.
From the time of entering orbit, radio communication between the ground control center near Moscow and the Soyuz capsule was temporarily disrupted. This was rated as "not dramatic" by the Russian side. After a first orbiting of the earth, the future ISS crew peeled off from the heavy space suits in the narrow capsule.
The most important task of the spacemen is to connect the computers of the three ISS modules and to set the on-board systems in motion. The station had previously been visited only for short maintenance stops by crews of US space ferries.
The construction of the ISS had been delayed for almost two years mainly because of lack of money and technical problems on the Russian side. It was not until this summer that the centerpiece of the station, the Russian-built residential and service module "Zvezda" (Stern), was launched - a further development of the almost 15-year-old space station Mir. Already since the end of 1998, the Russian payload module "Sarja" (dawn) and the American sluice node "Unity" (unit) are floating together in space. display
The first ISS crew will receive a US space shuttle during their 117 days in space and will receive two Russian Progress freighters with additional equipment. 51-year-old Shepherd heads the mission. The flight of the ISS is to be steered in the first years above all by the Russian control center with Moscow. Nevertheless, the radio traffic is conducted almost exclusively in English, only Russian may be spoken during the flight of the ISS on Russian ground control centers.
Russia does not have enough money to co-operate with the ISS and keep alive the aging space laboratory Mir. In recent months, Russian rockets and spaceships from the ISS reserve have been used repeatedly for flights to Mir. This provoked criticism from the USA's most important ISS partner. The Russian government is now planning to abandon Mir in February after 15 years in orbit if no private financiers are found by then.
Federal Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn (SPD) praised the successful launch of the ISS as an "important step for cross-border cooperation in international research". With the move to the station, a new era in space exploration is beginning, she said. At the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, scientists, groups of students and journalists watched the start via video transmission. German astronaut Reinhold Ewald said the ISS opens a new dimension for research.
The construction of the ISS will be completed in five to six years. The total cost is estimated at more than 200 billion marks. The European Space Laboratory "Columbus" is expected to be launched in 2004. 16 nations are involved in the largest international research project in space, including Germany.dpa and bdw