Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne has taken the helm of theInternational Space Station (ISS) Saturday, becoming the first European ever tocommand the $100 billion orbiting laboratory.
De Winne, 48, of the European Space Agency, officiallytook charge of the orbiting laboratory's Expedition 21 mission after thelast commander, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, departed on a Russian Soyuzspacecraft headed for Earth. Until now, all station commanders have been eitherAmerican or Russian.
"I've always been proud to be European," De Winnesaid 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 firstEuropean commander of the International Space Station."
De Winne launched to the station in May 2009, making hissecond trip into space. He is due to spend a total of about six months inorbit.
"Gennady, you have been a great example for me,"De Winne said during a change-of-command ceremony before Padalka left thestation. "It was a pleasure to serve under you and you will forever be anexample in my life."
De Winne is now leading a crew of six spaceflyers, includingCanadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, Russian cosmonauts RomanRomanenko 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 thisyear 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 thecommander of Expedition 21 and already has proven so."
Williams is set to take over command when De Winne departsthe station in early December.
De Winne is due to oversee a number of milestones during histenure as commander, including the release of the Japaneseunmanned cargo ship HTV-1 - the first of its kind - that arrived at thestation in September.
"Hopefully we will get a very successful HTV mission,which so far has been extremely successful," De Winne said. "It showsthat the international cooperation and the international partnership on ISS isworking well."
The space station has been under construction since 1998 andis the product of cooperation among 16 partner countries.
During De Winne's term, the station will see the arrival ofa new Russian compartment for the - the Mini Research Module 2 - which willserve as an extra airlock and docking port. The station crew will also host moreastronauts when the space shuttle Atlantis arrives in November to deliver vitalsupplies and spare parts.
- Video - Challenging Command: Belgian Astronaut Leads Crew of Six
- Video - Acrobat Space Tourist Trains for Launch
- SPACE.com Video Show - Inside the International Space Station
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Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.