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U.S. Shuttles may resume ISS flights in May
Updated: 2004-10-13 00:14

The United States' grounded Space Shuttle fleet may resume flights to the International Space Station next May or June, a senior ISS official said Tuesday.

Russia has borne the brunt of ferrying crews and cargo to the multibillion-dollar, 16-nation station since the Columbia shuttle disintegrated on reentry over Texas in February 2003, killing seven astronauts.

"Our Russian colleagues have done an outstanding job," Michael Suffredini, deputy director of the ISS program, told Reuters.

"As far as when the Space Shuttle returns to flight, the date we are looking at is the May time frame, which is a mid-May to early June launch window."

Officials at U.S. space agency NASA said earlier the Shuttle Discovery should be launched in April or early May.

"Based on what I know from my Shuttle colleagues, (May-June) is a very durable window," Suffredini said.

As Suffredini spoke, a Soyuz TMA-5 spacecraft was being hoisted onto Russia's Baikonur launch pad, named "Gagarin's Start" after the first man in space.

The cigar-shaped rocket, rolled out of its giant hangar on a chilly and windy dawn on the bleak steppes of Kazakhstan, will take a U.S.-Russian crew on the 10th long-term mission to the station Thursday.

Russian Salizhan Sharipov, NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao and Yuri Shargin, a lieutenant-colonel in Russia's space forces, will relieve Russia's Gennady Padalka and NASA's Michael Fincke after their six-month stint in orbit. Shargin returns with the outgoing crew in 10 days.

The R-7 prototype of the rocket that will blast off on Thursday was originally designed to fire nuclear warheads at cold war foes. Now this single-use booster still stuns experts with 98-99 percent reliability.

"The beauty of this rocket is in its simplicity," said U.S. astronaut Michael Baker, chief of NASA's international space training. He held a good luck charm, a coin flattened on the rails as the rocket rolled toward the launch pad.

The ISS was put into orbit in 1998 and hosted its first astronauts in 2000. The loss of the Columbia shuttle stopped assembly work at the station which will house at least four astronauts starting in 2009, but will never support long-term visits as originally planned.

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