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Space tourist might have to wait to dock with Alpha

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- Space tourist Dennis Tito will launch as scheduled Saturday, but he might have to wait a few days before docking with space station Alpha.

NASA said that after a series of discussions, the U.S. and Russian space agencies agreed that the Soyuz 2 taxi mission will launch Saturday at 3:37 a.m. EDT (7:37 GMT).

But Russia has agreed to delay docking with Alpha if more time is needed to resolve computer problems aboard the station.

Friday's decision will ensure continued safe operations aboard the international space station and provide for the timely arrival of the replacement Soyuz lifeboat, NASA said in a press release.

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Tito and two cosmonauts will be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kasahkstan.

The U.S. requested that Russia delay the mission after computer problems postponed testing of Alpha's new robot arm. NASA extended the mission of the shuttle by a day to support Alpha while repairs were made on the computers. The space agency considered extending a second day, but that would have meant Endeavour would still have been docked when the Soyuz rocket arrived.

NASA was concerned the arriving rocket might not have enough room to clear Endeavour's tail. NASA shuttle flight director Phil Engelauf said Soyuz would come "uncomfortably close" to Endeavour's tail if it tried to dock before the shuttle left.

NASA engineers also were uncertain what affect two docked ships would have on the structural integrity of the space station, according to NASA.

At one point, the Russians questioned whether Alpha's computer problems were real, or a delay tactic to keep Tito on the ground.

Technical problems aboard the space station "were not catastrophic," Viktor Blagov, deputy head of the Russian flight program told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for Russia's space agency, said the glitches had been blown out of proportion by U.S. officials trying to put Tito's trip.

NASA has opposed Tito's visit saying the mission is a critical one and the presence of an amateur could be dangerous.

Russia says it has the right to decide who travels on its flights to the space station, which it is building with the U.S., Canada, European countries and Japan.

Tito, a 60-year-old former NASA engineer-turned-investments manager, appeared buoyant at what was expected to be the crew's last prelaunch news conference, but hinted at impatience over the wrangling.

"The training was most difficult," Tito said from behind a glass partition designed to protect the cosmonauts from germs. "It was made more difficult by political problems."



RELATED STORIES:
Heavens-bound tourist: Let's go
April 26, 2001
Computer glitch delays test of space station arm
April 25, 2001
Space station officials approve tourist visit
April 24, 2001

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