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Space newbies head to station

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian rocket carrying a new Russian-U.S. crew to the international space station lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome today.

For Russians Salizhan Sharipov and Yuri Shargin and American Leroy Chiao, it was the first mission in a Soyuz spacecraft – breaking the nearly 30-year tradition of having at least one crewman with previous experience in piloting the capsule.

Chiao and Sharipov both have flown U.S. space shuttles, while Shargin is a rookie.

The Soyuz TMA-5 lifted off from the bleak steppes of Kazakhstan at 7:06 a.m. Moscow time and was due to dock with the station in two days.

Since the mid-1970s, Soviet and Russian space crews always have included a cosmonaut with previous pilot experience to ensure a smooth ride. The tradition now has been broken because several veteran cosmonauts have resigned in recent years and the space agency hasn’t had enough seats on recent Soyuz missions to train their replacements, said Yuri Grigoryev, a spokesman for Russia’s Cosmonaut Training Center.

“It’s not a problem. We simply need to adapt to new conditions,” he said.