Edward Lu, a physicist, and Yuri Malenchenko, a pilot and engineer, should have flown to the space station last month, aboard the shuttle Atlantis. But the Columbia catastrophe forced an indefinite grounding of NASA's three remaining shuttles.
So Lu and Malenchenko will travel aboard the Russian Space Agency's Soyuz capsule for a space station stay of about six months. The Soyuz is scheduled to lift off from Kazakhstan around April 26.
Only two other Americans have ever rocketed away in a Russian spacecraft.
The original plan was for Lu and Malenchenko to move into the space station along with another Russian cosmonaut, but the crew was pared from three to two to put as little strain on the station's supplies as possible.
That's because supplies are usually carried on U.S. shuttles, which are considerably larger than the Soyuz capsules and Russia's cargo ships. With the shuttle fleet grounded, the space station supplies will need to be stretched for a longer time. In addition, station construction is on hold because only shuttles are big enough to hoist new pieces.
Lu, a 39-year-old expert in solar flares, flew to Russia's space station in 1997 and to the fledgling international space station in 2000. Malenchenko, 41, was on that latter shuttle flight, and the two teamed up for a spacewalk to hook up exterior cables.
The son of Chinese-born parents, Lu, grew up in Webster, N.Y., and was working at the Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu when he applied to the astronaut corps in 1994. NASA picked him on his first try.
Malenchenko commanded a four-month Mir mission in 1994.
The two will spend nearly a week getting a space station tour and insight from the three current residents, Americans Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian Nikolai Budarin. Those three will return to Earth in early May in the Soyuz capsule presently docked at the station; they have been in orbit since November.
Bowersox and Pettit will be the first U.S. astronauts to land in a Russian craft. California millionaire Dennis Tito returned from the space station in a Soyuz two years ago.
By Marcia Dunn