When the first residents of the international space station dock tomorrow and slip through the porthole of their new home in space, they will begin a building process hard for earthlings to ignore.
The space station will grow in brightness as the three-man American-Russian crew begin adding solar arrays to their craft.
"I wish I was in the driver's seat," said American astronaut Scott Kelly, wistfully echoing the thoughts of many astronauts just moments before the Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off Tuesday from a fog-shrouded patch of Earth. Now a leader of NASA training at Star City, outside Moscow, Kelly will one day spend time on the space station. "People are up there," he said. "Your friends are up there."
Indeed, it can be said that in the five years that NASA, the Russians, and others in a 16-nation consortium have been collaborating on the project, one of the important things launched has been international understanding.
"I've seen a change not just in the Russians, but in the Americans," said Dan Goldin of NASA.."We Americans are pretty cocky. We're good. But so are the Russians.
"When we came here...there was a closedness among the Russians...," Mr. Goldin said. "There was stress between our people. There wasn't trust. And the biggest change is that the Russians trust the Americans, and we trust the Russians."
During the nine-minute launch there were emotional scenes at the viewing site - proof that exploring space is a very human endeavor. Americans and Russians alike - some teary-eyed - cheered as the roaring rocket rose upon a cone of fire and disappeared.
"Now it's just the beginning," said a smiling Beth Stringham-Shepherd, wife of the American commander of "Expedition One," Bill Shepherd. Michael Foale, another astronaut who spent time on Russia's aging Mir space station - and is soon to be on the list to stay at the international space station - told Mrs. Shepherd: "Great job. You didn't break down and blubber like we did."
Russian cosmonauts say they feel similarly emotional about the $60 billion space station program, which has experienced years of delay, largely due to Russia's inability to pay for its portion of the project and wavering political support among some European members.
"The most important result in these years, is that we created a way to work together in any field, from technical to cultural," said Mikhail Tyurin, the back-up for flight engineer Sergei Krikalev. "It is achieved."
For the Americans, working so closely with former cold war enemies has been a cultural awakening.
"I studied a lot of Russian culture, but no one prepared me for what I would find here - it provokes emotions that are new," said Ken Bowersox, the astronaut who was understudy to Commander Shepherd. One example, he said, is the "first time a Russian man comes up and puts his arm around you. It's something new."
The result has meant a different approach. "Sometimes as a shuttle commander, you must put your emotions aside, so it doesn't distract you, but here you can't do that," Mr. Bowersox said. "Emotion is everywhere, and you have to deal with it."
The cold war stereotype of a cold, soulless Soviet person is "purely on the surface," he added. "When you get close to it, the emotions are so strong that Americans sometimes have to take a break from it. When you get that kind of relationship with people, you realize it is much better to be working together than building bombs and missiles."
When complete, the international space station will be seven stories high and weigh 418 tons. NASA plans for the station to operate for at least 10 years.
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