A Russian Soyuz rocket roared to life and streaked into orbit Wednesday, setting off for the International Space Station in a long-awaited mission to boost the lab's crew from three to six full-time residents.
With Apollo 11 moon walker Buzz Aldrin and a throng of dignitaries and well-wishers looking on, the Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft lifted off at 3:34 a.m. PDT and quickly climbed away from the sprawling Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Live television shots from inside the capsule showed Soyuz commander Roman Romanenko, son of a Russian cosmonaut, at the controls in the capsule's center seat. He was flanked on the left by European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium and on the right by Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, a shuttle veteran.
Nine minutes after liftoff, the Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft slipped into its planned preliminary orbit and a few minutes later, its solar panels and antennas unfolded and locked in place as planned.
Over the next two days, Romanenko will oversee a series of rocket firings designed to bring the spacecraft to within a stone's throw of the space station. If all goes well, the Soyuz capsule will dock at an Earth-facing port on the front end of the space station's Russian Zarya module around 5:36 a.m. PDT Friday.
Waiting to welcome their new crewmates aboard will be Expedition 20 commander Gennady Padalka, NASA physician-astronaut Michael Barratt, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.
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 it's primary purpose, which is to function as a world-class orbiting laboratory for medical science and materials science."
The lab complex has been stocked with enough food to last the expanded crew through October even if subsequent shuttle and unmanned resupply missions get delayed. Oxygen is generated on board by U.S. and Russian systems and fresh water is delivered by shuttle crews and automated Russian supply ships.
In a major milestone, a sophisticated water-recycling system was installed late last year. After start-up problems were resolved, the new hardware was cleared for everyday use. The system recycles condensate and urine from a U.S. toilet in the Destiny lab module, generating ultra-pure water for drinking, crew hygiene, and oxygen generation.
The water recycling system will be critical to sustaining a six-person crew after the space shuttle is retired late next year.
"It will be a challenge for everybody to make sure we can sustain six persons on orbit," De Winne said before launch. "I think it shows a great example to the rest of the world that if nations want to work together for something great, for something wonderful, for something for the future of our kids, that we can achieve incredible things," he said.
Until now, the station's science output has been limited because assembly was ongoing and the lab's three full-time crew members were busy simply maintaining the growing complex. With a crew of six, the time devoted to scientific research is expected to jump from 20 hours a week to more than 70.
"We've been building the International Space Station for 10 years now and we've finally gotten to a point now where it has some incredible laboratory facilities and six people on board the station to do some science," Thirsk said. "So you're going to see over 1,000 hours (in the near term) of crew time devoted to research and development."
More than 100 experiments are planned for the Expedition 20 crew.
Romanenko and Padalka will bunk in the Russian Zvezda module, which is equipped with two sleep stations and a bathroom. Two more sound-proofed "cabins" are available in the Harmony module that serves as a hub between the European Columbus module, the Japanese Kibo lab and the U.S. Destiny module.
An additional U.S. sleep station is scheduled for launch in August and a fourth will be installed later. In the near term, one Expedition 20 astronaut will use a temporary sleep station in the Destiny module while another sleeps in Kibo. A second toilet, the one tied into the water recycling system, is available in Destiny as well, extending out into the lab's center aisle.
Challenges of doubling crew
While the space station is roomy compared with any previous spacecraft, a full-time crew of six will present challenges.
"Everyone knows what it's like to have the in-laws and friends and other family members over for the holidays for several days," Thirsk said. "There are line-ups at the bathroom, meals have to be properly coordinated, there are even line-ups for use of the phone, and everyone loses their personal space a little bit. But it's something we're willing to go through."
The expanded station crew faces a busy time line over the next few weeks. Padalka and Barratt are planning spacewalks on June 5 and 10 to prepare an upward-facing port of the Zvezda command module for attachment of another docking module.
Three days after the second spacewalk, NASA plans to launch the shuttle Endeavour on a five-spacewalk assembly mission to attach an experiment platform to the Kibo module and change out batteries on the station's oldest set of U.S. solar arrays.
Endeavour also will deliver a fresh crew member--Timothy Kopra--and bring Wakata back to Earth. Another crew swap is planned for a shuttle flight in August when NASA astronaut Nicole Stott replaces Kopra.