After saying “do svedaniya” to his wife, three sons and adopted Russian cat, America’s first cosmonaut blasted off today aboard a Russian rocket to spend three months on space station Mir.
The Soyuz rocket carrying U.S. astronaut Norman E. Thagard and his Russian colleagues roared off the launching pad in this barren Central Asian desert at 11:13 a.m. (10:13 p.m. Monday PST) and is expected to dock at the Russian space station Thursday.
On Monday, Thagard, 51, had praised the joint U.S.-Russian space effort. “This program in my view has demonstrated very well that the two sides can work together smoothly,” he said, predicting that the two nations will “do many great things in space together.”
“Given what the costs of space exploration are these days, we need to,” Thagard said at a farewell news conference with his two Russian colleagues: Mir 18 flight commander Vladimir N. Dezhurov, 32; and engineer Gennady M. Strekalov, 54.
The Mir 18 mission, aimed at boosting the flagging fortunes of both the American and Russian space programs, is part of a four-year, $400million program of joint space flights and research.
The program gives Russia financing to keep its cash-strapped program from withering. America will buy Russian equipment that would be costly to develop from scratch and gets the chance to conduct experiments on the space station it has long wanted but has been unable to afford.
The Mir missions are only the precursor to the international space station, an orbiting research laboratory to be jointly built and owned by Russia, the United States, the European space agency, Japan and Canada. If all goes well, the first components will be launched in November 1997, and by June 2002 the space station will be ready for permanent human habitation.