A wedding that's (partly) out of this world

A Russian cosmonaut and his fiancée will exchange marriage vows while he is in space and she is on Earth.

The flowers have been selected, the food has been ordered, and the band has been booked. It's going to be an out-of-this-world affair. Literally.

This Sunday, while orbiting 240 miles above her, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko will exchange marriage vows with Ekaterina Dmitriev, who will remain firmly on Earth.

The heavenly event not only makes history, it marks what will surely be the first of many such events as humans continue to explore the cosmos. Prompted by the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster - a solemn reminder of the risks involved in such exploration - it's reminiscent of the slew of weddings that occurred before soldiers shipped off to fight in World War II.

Colonel Malenchenko popped the question before leaving for the International Space Station in April to replace the lost Columbia crew. The couple had initially decided to get married when he returned to Earth in late October, but the more they thought about the Columbia disaster, say friends, the more they couldn't wait.

"Columbia reminded them that life happens, and it doesn't wait for us or our plans," says Jo Ann Schwartz Woodward, the couple's Houston- based wedding planner.

Texas law allows weddings in which one of the parties is not present. It's called a proxy wedding and is also legal in Colorado and Montana. Texas is also one of the few states in which both parties don't have to be present to obtain a marriage license.

News of the historic event spread fast, and dozens of reporters were waiting for Ms. Dmitriev when she arrived at the Fort Bend County Clerk's office to obtain a license several weeks ago. "Of course, it's always exciting for a bride to come in and get a marriage license," says county clerk Dianne Wilson, who helped decorate the office in red, white, and blue to honor both the American and Russian flags. "The only difference this time was the groom was not on Earth."

Malenchenko will attend the wedding via satellite uplink from his post on the International Space Station. He received a tuxedo and wedding ring from a cargo ship that arrived at the station in June, and his counterpart, American astronaut Edward Lu, will act as best man and play the wedding march on the keyboard he brought onboard. In case communications break down, a family friend will be at the actual ceremony to stand in as the proxy groom.

Dmitriev was born in Russia and moved to the Houston area when she was 3-1/2 years old. She received her US citizenship in 1995. Her father is a professor of Russian language at Oklahoma State University and her mother works at NASA. Dmitriev first met Malenchenko five years ago at a social gathering in Houston, and the two started dating in 2002. She will be returning to Russia to live with him when he returns. Since Russia does not recognize proxy weddings, they are planning a Russian Orthodox wedding once home.

Malenchenko's superiors were not delighted to hear of his pending wedding. As a military officer, he is considered the holder of state secrets and cannot marry a foreigner without getting special permission (Dmitriev received her US citizenship in 1995). He did no such thing, and is going ahead with the wedding despite advice to wait until he returns to earth. NASA has remained quiet, calling it a private matter, and eventually agreed to let the couple hold the ceremony at the Johnson Space Center. The reception will take place at a nearby hotel.

Many of the wedding details, such as who the bride will have her first dance with and what her dress looks like, have been kept secret. But the space-based groom has taken an active role in the planning, says Ms. Schwartz Woodward. He's been helping choose floral arrangements, the dinner menu (a Russian feast), and his bride's reception dress via e-mail and occasional telephone calls.

"It's going to be a very traditional wedding in a very untraditional situation," says Schwartz Woodward.

It's also going to be a little lonely for the bride and groom on their first night as husband and wife. But Dmitriev considers the union a marriage made in heaven. "This shows you that long-distance relationships do work," she told reporters recently.

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