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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 October, 2003, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Mission heads for space station
A US-Russian space mission is now in orbit and heading for the International Space Station (ISS), where veteran astronaut Michael Foale is due to take up his post as commander.

Russian Soyuz TMA-3 rocket blasts off from Kazakhstan, 18 October 2003
Michael Foale is making his sixth trip into space
British-born Foale, 46, who now lives in the US, will stay on the orbiting outpost for six months with Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri.

The Soyuz TMA-3 spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1138 (0538 GMT) amid tight security.

It is expected to dock at the 16-nation ISS on Monday.

Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque, from the European Space Agency (Esa), is also travelling to the ISS to conduct scientific experiments as part of the 10-day Cervantes Mission.

US space agency (Nasa) head Sean O'Keefe said the successful launch was "a testament to the [Russian and US] partnership and how deep it really is".

Relief crew

The main purpose of the mission is to exchange crews and to switch over the Soyuz space craft, which is kept permanently docked at the ISS in case of emergencies.

Michael Foale, Nasa

Foale and Kaleri, who make up the Expedition 8 crew, will replace Russian Yuri Malenchenko, 41, and American Ed Lu (Expedition 7 crew), who have been living and working in space since April.

They were the first crew to return to space after the Columbia disaster, Lu wearing the badge of his lost colleagues.

Cosmonaut Malenchenko got married in orbit and has not yet had a chance to see the bride face-to-face.

After a week's handover, the Expedition 7 crew and Duque will return to Earth on 27 October in the old Soyuz TMA-2 craft.

Foale is making his sixth trip into space, having spent more than four months aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1997.

Fleet grounded

During the visit to the ISS, Foale will clock up more hours in space than any other US astronaut in history.

Kaleri, 47, is on his fourth flight. He has visited Mir three times, spending an incredible 416 days in orbit.

It is hoped their return in six months time will be smoother than that of the previous space mission.

A bumpy landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan hundreds of kilometres off target in May led to rescue teams spending nerve-wracking hours locating the capsule.

The visit to the space station comes at a time when the space shuttle fleet is grounded.

Construction work at the ISS is on hold because the space shuttle is the only way to transport large, heavy equipment and big scientific apparatus to and from the orbiting platform.

The BBC's Clarence Mitchell
"It is four years since Michael Foale was last in space"


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