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Shuttle's shadow over manned space launch

By Jill Dougherty
CNN Moscow Bureau Chief

Malenchenko (right) with Lu
Mission commander Yuri Malenchenko (left) with Edward Lu at Friday's pre-flight news conference.

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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- The first manned flight to the International Space Station since the February 1 shuttle Columbia disaster is to blast off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday.

Edward Lu, 39, of the United States, and Yuri Malenchenko, 41, of Russia, are scheduled to spend six months on the space station.

The crew was supposed to fly the Atlantis shuttle to the space station in March, but NASA has grounded all shuttle flights until the cause of the Columbia tragedy can be determined.

As a result, all transport to and from the space station, including delivering provisions such as food and water, has to be carried out by Russian space ships.

Malenchenko and Lu have trained together for several months. They were aboard space shuttle Atlantis in September 2000, when they performed a space walk to connect power and communication cables in preparation for the space station's first inhabitants. The two spent five days inside the space station on that visit, according to NASA.

A week before the launch, as he trained at Star City outside Moscow, Lu told CNN the first few weeks after the shuttle disaster "were difficult ... after the loss of our friends." But "once you get down to work it's been all business because we have a job to do and I think we're ready."

After a two-day flight, the Soyuz capsule is expected to dock at the space station Monday at 1:56 p.m. EDT, NASA said.

The current three-man crew aboard the space station -- astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin -- will return to Earth on May 4 aboard the Soyuz space vehicle currently tethered to the station as its escape vehicle.

NASA and the Russian Space Agency decided on a two-man crew to conserve supplies such as food and water.

Without a third man, the new crew will not be doing space walks, although if there is an emergency, they are capable of carrying out that procedure.

They also will not be doing any construction on the space station since the shuttle is the only vehicle capable of carrying large parts to the station.

The crew also will be eating Russian food for the foreseeable future. Lu said Russian soups are "really good."

The shuttle disaster created a potential crisis in the funding of flights to the space station.

Russia initially said it could not afford to build more spacecraft without U.S. funding. The United States is restricted from funding the Russian space program because of a law from the Clinton administration tied to Russia's support of Iran and the proliferation of weapons technology.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, intervened and guaranteed that Russia would provide rockets and fuel to keep the space station aloft.

The government doubled the Russian space agency budget from $130 million to $240 million and released early $38 million budgeted for the second half of the year.

Energia Corp., which builds the Russian spacecraft, will produce two new Soyuz modules this year, along with four Progress cargo ships, instead of the usual three.

The International Space Station has been in operation with a crew since November 2, 2000.

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