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Russian Soyuz rocket prepped for milestone launch

A rocket is set for launch Wednesday from Kazakhstan in a milestone mission to boost the International Space Station's crew size to six full-time residents.

In a long-awaited milestone for the International Space Station, a Russian Soyuz rocket scheduled for launch early Wednesday will ferry three fresh crew members to the lab complex, boosting its crew size to six for the first time.

Soyuz TMA-15 commander Roman Romanenko (left), Robert Thirsk (center), and Frank De Winne before launch to the International Space Station RSC Energia

The Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft, mounted atop the same launch pad used by Yuri Gagarin at the dawn of the space age, is scheduled for takeoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:34:49 a.m. EDT.

Soyuz commander Roman Romanenko, son of a Russian cosmonaut, will be strapped into the center seat, flanked by European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, a shuttle veteran.

"I can't think of three finer gentlemen to help us realize our dream of six permanent crew in orbit," Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, told the Soyuz crew Tuesday.

Assuming an on-time liftoff, Romanenko plans to oversee an automated approach and docking to an Earth-facing port on the front end of the space station's Russian Zarya module at 8:36 a.m. Friday. Waiting to welcome their new crewmates aboard will be Expedition 20 commander Gennady Padalka, NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.

Padalka and Barratt were launched to the station March 26 aboard the Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft. Wakata was launched aboard the shuttle Discovery on March 15, becoming Japan's first full-time station crew member.

The Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. RSC Energia

With the arrival of Romanenko, De Winne, and Thirsk, all five of the space agencies building the International Space Station will be represented by full-time crew members for the first time.

"(A) six-person crew is a milestone in the history of the International Space Station," Thirsk said before launch. "In a big way, the International Space Station will be able to fulfill its primary purpose, which is to function as a world-class orbiting laboratory for medical science and materials science.

"But there are also practical issues to consider as well with a crew of six and one of our goals, with our three colleagues in orbit, is to prove that the station can support six people for a long duration."