By Irene Klotz
Frank de Winne (l) will take over command in August
Next week, European astronaut Frank De Winne will leave Russia's cosmonaut training centre outside of Moscow and fly to neighbouring Kazakhstan, where a Soyuz rocket is being prepared to carry him and two crewmates to the International Space Station.
They will be the 20th crew to staff the station, but this time the current residents are not coming right home.
They will all live together, six in space, finally fulfilling a plan for full-time science operations aboard the nearly complete orbital outpost.
After four months in orbit, Mr De Winne, who is scheduled for launch on 27 May, will take over as commander, becoming the first European in charge of a crew in orbit.
"A big part of the mission is to step up to the six-person crew," De Winne said. "We think we're up to the task."
Mr De Winne will be flying to the station with Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk.
They will join commander Gennady Padalka, Nasa astronaut Michael Barratt and Japan's Koichi Wakata.
When Padalka leaves in August, Mr De Winne, 48, a former pilot and squadron leader in the Belgian Air Force, steps into the command post.
He has made one previous spaceflight, a nine-day research mission aboard the station in 2002. Mr De Winne also served as the backup to European astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who lived aboard the station last year to oversee the set-up of Europe's Columbus laboratory.
Mr De Winne has received extensive training for his new job, including work in conflict resolution.
"As commander of the space station, your biggest job is to keep the crew in a good mood and to make sure the crew is comfortable and well-rested and can do the job to the best of their abilities," he said.
"One of the ways to do that is to make sure that there are no conflicts amongst the crewmembers or between the crew and the ground because then people are thinking about what worries them and not the job that they have to do," Mr De Winne said.
"We have talks with psychologists and specialists about this topic. This is an integral part of this training," he added.
The space station is set to move to a complement of six crew
The station's expansion to a six-member crew comes as the world is reeling from an economic recession that has consumed many thousands of jobs worldwide, with no clear end in sight.
"Personally, we are also confronted with this crisis and we have in our families and friends people who have suffered from this, so we are certainly not isolated from this. We are all very, very well aware of what is happening on Earth," Mr De Winne explained.
Rather than looking at the space programme as an extravagance, the Esa astronaut feels it serves as a role model for problem-solving.
"If you want to work together, it is not easy, but if you want to there is always a way to go forward together and to accomplish great things together," he said.
"The big advantage of the International Space Station is that it's international - it's not a US programme where some people from other countries fly, or a Russian programme, where some people from other nations fly like the Mir programme.
"It's really an international space station, where everyone has the same rights. I think it can be a great example for the world," he said.
Mr De Winne is scheduled to spend six months in orbit. Nasa plans up to eight more shuttle missions to complete assembly of the $100bn outpost, a project of 16 member nations.