Page last updated at 19:12 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 20:12 UK

European commands space station

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Frank de Winne, front-right (Nasa)
Frank De Winne (front-right) is on his second mission to the ISS

Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne has spoken of his pride at taking command of the International Space Station.

The European Space Agency astronaut is the first national outside of the US and Russia to lead a crew on the orbiting platform.

De Winne took the role at the weekend when the previous commander, Gennady Padalka, left to return to Earth.

The Belgian told reporters on Tuesday that his appointment was a great moment for the European Astronaut Corps.

"I have always been proud to be European and the Europeans of course have a big heritage as explorers; and so, therefore, for me, it is a big honour to be the first European to be a commander of the space station," he said.

De Winne made his remarks during a live link-up with the ISS. He took questions while floating inside the Columbus module, Europe's science lab attached to the platform.

The Esa astronaut launched to the station in May. He will stay aboard the platform until December when he is due to fly back to Earth in a Soyuz capsule.

'Mature' role

During his command, he will oversee the completion of the Japanese HTV mission.

The HTV is a new freighter that supplies the ISS with food and equipment. The robotic truck will soon detach from the platform, taking itself and the ISS's rubbish into a controlled burn-up over the Pacific Ocean.

Expedition 21 - the name given to De Winne's crew - will also welcome a new module from Russia. The Mini-Research Module 2, or MRM 2, will act as an additional docking port and airlock at the Russian end of the station.

It will be delivered next month.

The Belgian also has a busy schedule of science ahead of him. He said he had already worked on 35 experiments and had a further 10 to work through before his stay was completed.

Simonetta Di Pippo, the director of human spaceflight at Esa, congratulated Frank De Winne on his appointment. She said it reflected well on all European space activity.

"It is a confirmation for the quality of our work, of our teams who support the operations and who prepare, train and support our astronauts," she told BBC News.

"This commandership also marks the fact that Europe is mature to play a greater role in human spaceflight and exploration."

Clown company

Two Esa astronauts are due to go to the ISS next year; a third will follow in 2011.

At the moment, Europe is dependent on other nations to carry its astronauts into orbit. Esa recently initiated a study to examine if its robotic ATV freighter could be upgraded to carry crews of its own.

Frank De Winne spent nine days aboard the space station in 2002.

Asked about the recent visit of circus entrepreneur Guy Laliberte to the platform as a space tourist, the ISS commander said the Canadian had fitted in well.

"He integrated very well in the crew and he did not disturb our work at all," the Belgian explained.

"Moreover, I think it's very important that people like him who talk to a different audience about the importance of space also get the opportunity do that; and I think he did it very well."

Mr Laliberte, the self-described "first clown in space", led an artistic performance from orbit during his stay to highlight global water issues.

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