Europe’s First Space Station Commander Takes Charge
European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, Expedition 21 commander, works in the Harmony node of the International Space Station in August 2009.
Credit: NASA

Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne has taken the helm of the International Space Station (ISS) Saturday, becoming the first European ever to command the $100 billion orbiting laboratory.

De Winne, 48, of the European Space Agency, officially took charge of the orbiting laboratory's Expedition 21 mission after the last commander, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, departed on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft headed for Earth. Until now, all station commanders have been either American or Russian.

"I've always been proud to be European," De Winne said Tuesday during an in-space press conference. "Europeans, of course, have a big heritage as explorers. It?s a big honor for me to be the first European commander of the International Space Station."

De Winne launched to the station in May 2009, making his second trip into space. He is due to spend a total of about six months in orbit.

Padalka landed in Kazakhstan Sunday along with departing Expedition 20 flight engineer Mike Barratt of NASA, and Canadian space tourist Guy Laliberte.

"Gennady, you have been a great example for me," De Winne said during a change-of-command ceremony before Padalka left the station. "It was a pleasure to serve under you and you will forever be an example in my life."

De Winne is now leading a crew of six spaceflyers, including Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, Russian cosmonauts Roman Romanenko and Maxim Suraev, and NASA astronauts Nicole Stott and Jeff Williams. They are only the second six-person team to serve on the station, which until this year hosted crews of two or three.

"[De Winne] is the right guy for the job," Williams said Tuesday. "I think he's going to be very effective as the commander of Expedition 21 and already has proven so."

Williams is set to take over command when De Winne departs the station in early December.

De Winne is due to oversee a number of milestones during his tenure as commander, including the release of the Japanese unmanned cargo ship HTV-1 - the first of its kind - that arrived at the station in September.

"Hopefully we will get a very successful HTV mission, which so far has been extremely successful," De Winne said. "It shows that the international cooperation and the international partnership on ISS is working well."

The space station has been under construction since 1998 and is the product of cooperation among 16 partner countries.

During De Winne's term, the station will see the arrival of a new Russian compartment for the - the Mini Research Module 2 - which will serve as an extra airlock and docking port. The station crew will also host more astronauts when the space shuttle Atlantis arrives in November to deliver vital supplies and spare parts.

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