About 3 a.m. today Philadelphia time, an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts were scheduled to soar into space aboard a Russian rocket. Two days later, they will make space history, docking with an 18,000 mph, 13-story, free-falling space station.
Their four-month residency on the new station will be among the longest space journeys in history.
The International Space Station mission is little-known to many Americans.
Yet if all goes according to plan, the endeavor has the potential to yield answers to questions dogging scientists for decades, even centuries. The mission could also prepare the world for future scientific feats, including the surreal, sci-fi possibility the station will be a home base for long-distance missions around the solar system.
"We can generate a lot more science and expect a lot more breakthroughs," said NASA spokeswoman Kirsten Larson. "Whereas in the past we had shuttles up for two weeks at a time, we'll now have the capability to have a laboratory in space."
Philadelphians can catch a glimpse of the station, which looms 250 miles above the Earth, by logging on to www.heavens-above.com, or by simply looking into the southwesterly sky tomorrow between 5:42 and 5:48 p.m., when the station will pass near a small crescent of moon.
The metal marvel is really bright and possible to see with the naked eye, experts say, though a pair of binoculars would help. Philadelphians may also be able to see the Russian Soyuz transport ship (which will take the three men to the station) just before it docks, experts say.
"The trick is, you can't just go outside at 5:42 on November 1, you have to go out at 5:40 and be pointed in the right direction well before time," said Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. "People should be looking for a moving object, small but rather bright, with no flashing lights. It will be moving from the west down toward the south."
Today's "Expedition One" mission is the first of dozens to the station, which is not scheduled to be structurally complete until at least 2005, officials say.
A permanent residence for explorers on the International Space Station is 19 years in the making. During the Reagan era, two NASA administrators had the vision to suggest such a project. The possibility it could be done in conjunction with Russia was shocking at the time.
Although originally pitched as an $8 billion project, realistic estimates place it at $60 billion with the possibility it will hit $117 billion, depending on how long it remains operational, according to published reports.
The station will provide an "orbital laboratory" for research on substances and humans without the presence of gravity. Researchers will conduct experiments in biology, chemistry, physics and ecology using the most high-tech tools available, and could discover how gravity affects human beings as well as gain a new understanding of the building blocks of life, according to NASA.
Without the pressure of gravity, cancer treatments can be tested on living cell cultures without risk to patients. Scientists can also learn how astronauts fare in space, which will prepare them for future, longer missions.
The inconveniences of space travel are many, but astronauts typically adjust to queasiness within a couple of days.
Both of the Russian cosmonauts are experienced travelers, and the American commander of the station, William Shepherd, is also a Navy Seal. All the men are married, and two have children, according to NASA.
Each day in space, astronauts will enjoy a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes, since the satellite station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. They will be falling sideways constantly, and will have to tie their sleeping bags to walls to sleep.
Daily hygiene will become quite a feat. Mostly, they'll mop themselves with damp towels and end up smelling rank for the voyage. Other functions, including relieving themselves and brushing their teeth or showering, will be accomplished with high-tech vacuums, said astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
Imagination can fill in the blanks here.
The space explorers will also be having fun, playing games with free-floating objects, chatting with their families through Mission Control radios and eating better space food than the space cowboys of yesteryear.
"These days, the food is normal," said McDowell. "It's a lot better than it used to be. They eat meat, cheese. . .But they don't eat anything crumbly, like sponge cake. That can break into pieces and float off."
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