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Shuttle Stand-down Strains Russia

International Space Station Alpha seen from Space Shuttle Discovery
AP
Russian engineers attached the spacecraft set to carry a replacement crew to the international space station to a rocket on Friday, preparing for the third manned mission to the orbital outpost since NASA's shuttle disaster sidelined the U.S. space fleet.

Russian Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, American astronaut Michael Fincke and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers are to blast off Monday aboard the Soyuz TMA-4 spacecraft from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Russia's launch site for manned space missions.

At a huge hangar known as MIK, a Russian abbreviation for Assembly and Testing Complex, Russian engineers casually attached the craft to the Soyuz-FG rocket that is to carry it into space.

"May everything go as it has gone so far another thousand times," said Anatoly Pavlov, who represents Russia's Progress rocket company at Baikonur.

Since last year's shuttle disaster, Russia's non-reusable rockets have been the only means of deliver astronauts and cargo to the space station.

Burdened with the task of getting astronauts to and from the space station, the cash-strapped Russian space agency has put on hold construction of its own segment of the international space station and some commercial projects.

Monday's launch will be the third manned mission to the space station since the halt of the U.S. shuttle program after the February 2003 Columbia disaster.

Padalka and Fincke are to spend 183 days on the space station. Kuipers will return after nine days with the station's current crew, U.S. astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, who have been working there since October.

Space shuttles will not fly again until next year and when Discovery does lift off on the first post-Columbia mission, Atlantis will be on standby for a potential rescue mission.

NASA's senior spaceflight officials decided in February to push back the next launch to March 2005 because of lingering work and engineering concerns, and picked Discovery to be first up.