STAR CITY, Russia -- Now that the new space station is safely manned, relief and euphoria have set in at the NASA enclave inside this cosmonaut training base.
American astronauts preparing for space station stints next year say their missions -- and their lives -- seem clearer since Bill Shepherd and his Russian crew blasted off and moved into the international space station last week. They're also thrilled that, at long last, the station has a name: Alpha.
"I'm just so excited for Shep and for the other guys on that crew that I just can't hardly stand it," said Susan Helms, who will move into Alpha in February. "I feel like it's really going to happen for us, too."
Added Carl Walz, who will check into Alpha next fall: "The train has left the station."
After years of space station delays, the six NASA astronauts training at Star City for upcoming flights wondered if Shepherd, the station's first commander, would ever make it to orbit and get the line moving for everyone else.
Helms and crewmate Jim Voss watched Tuesday's launch from Kazakstan on a big video screen in NASA's conference room at Star City. As soon as the engines ignited and the Russian Soyuz rocket was on its way, Helms and Voss slapped hands and shouted: "We're prime crew!" Translation: "We're next!"
"I've known for a long time we were going to get there, we were going to get the space station started, we were going to have human beings on board. But I was never really positive," Voss said. "Now, I'm pretty darn sure that in February, we're going to be up there replacing the first crew."
On Friday, one day after Shepherd and his crew moved into Alpha, astronaut Dan Bursch was still having trouble grasping the fact that the space station was actually inhabited.
"Whether it was the training and the negotiations or problems or head-butting that came up, we figured, 'Is this ever going to happen?' " he said.
Now that it has, Bursch feels confident he will fly to the space station next October with Walz and a Russian cosmonaut -- give or take a month.
"We all felt that once we got people up there, then really the clock starts counting down, because then you have to go back. You have to go back to change out the people," Bursch said. "The sooner, the better, especially from my wife's point of view."
Wife Roni is back home in Houston with the couple's three children, ages 6, 4 and almost 2.
NASA's astronauts say they don't mind training and living at Star City, an isolated, highly restricted military base that's a one- to two-hour drive from Moscow. But as Voss points out: "The length of the time it has taken has been a burden." Voss moved to Star City from Houston on March 3, 1996, his birthday. "I said it was a present from NASA."
Shepherd and his crew, cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, trained for nearly five years before flying. Their Expedition One mission was postponed more than two years by Russia's economic problems.
Typically, NASA astronauts assigned to space station missions spend about 40 percent of their time training at Star City and the rest at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, their home base. Russian cosmonauts split their training much the same way.
Because the space station has both U.S. and Russian modules, the crews must be familiar with both country's systems and both countries' ferry ships, the space shuttle and the Soyuz capsule.
NASA's Star City operations have expanded considerably since astronaut-manager Bill Readdy opened a one-room, four-person office in 1993 during the early shuttle-Mir program. Thirty people work in the building now for NASA, including Russians. Right next door are new, American-style duplex houses, numbered 1 through 6, that are home to the astronauts training for space station missions.
Helms said she'll miss Star City when she returns to Houston in a couple weeks to wrap up training. She's delighted, though, that she'll be flying to a space station that finally has a name.
Within a few hours of moving into the international space station on Thursday, Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev named it Alpha.
"I'm pleased that Shep had the guts to bring the issue forward and make it happen," Helms said.
Shepherd waited until he was on board before asking NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin for permission to call the place Alpha, the favorite choice of astronauts and cosmonauts at Star City. With hundreds of NASA and Russian space officials listening in, Goldin had no choice but to authorize the name for Shepherd's four-month mission, even though he'd just told reporters that the international space station didn't need a name, at least not yet.
"It was a great chess move," marveled Bursch.
Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, was the working title of the space station back in the early 1990s. It didn't last long in NASA's upper echelon, but the name stuck at Star City and even remained in many manuals.
"Alpha's a fine name. Alpha is Alpha in Russian. Spell it a little different, but you say it the same," Walz said.
The fact that it's the first truly international space station, with 16 countries taking part, makes the name Alpha especially appropriate, Voss said. He and Helms plan to keep calling it Alpha after they move in.
"We have an international outpost now that will be continuously manned with people from multiple countries and they're all going to work together," Helms said. "No matter what happens on Earth with strife between countries, there is one place where people from other countries are working together in peace, and I just think that is a great achievement."
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