STAR CITY, Russia (AP) --The next crew members of the International Space Station said Tuesday they wereproud of their mission, which involves the U.S. space shuttle's return toflight.
The Discovery space shuttleis set to be launched and dock at the station in mid-May in the first missionsince shuttle Columbia burned up on re-entry in February 2003, killing sevenpeople. Since then, Russian spacecraft have been the only link to theinternational space station.
Russiancosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, NASA astronaut John Phillips and Italian RobertoVittori of the European Space Agency are set to blast off to the station onboard a Russian Soyuz ship on April 15.
Vittori is set to return toEarth in another Soyuz after a 10-day stint on the station together with thestation's current crew, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao. Krikalevand Phillips will stay on the station.
"It's a very importantflight for NASA and for our international partnership, because we will bereturning the shuttles to flight during our expedition," Phillips said.
He said Krikalev and hewould be taking up pictures of Discovery during its approach, surveying it withlong-lens cameras for any sign of damage on its surface - part of NASA'sefforts to enhance the shuttle flights' safety.
"This can be a very tensemoment for us, but it's the one I'm proud to take part in," Phillips said at anews conference in Star City, the cosmonauts' training center outside Moscow."For me, having flown on the space shuttle and knowing what a wonderful vehicleit can be, it will be a really exciting moment."
NASA has devoted the pasttwo years coming up with ways to keep foam insulation from coming off the fueltank during liftoff, as it did on Columbia. But if a big piece did fall off andhit the shuttle, and the damage could not be fixed, Discovery's crew of sevenwould have to remain at the space station until another shuttle, Atlantis couldbe sent to the rescue.
Krikalev has warnedrecently that it would be difficult for the space station to accommodate sevenextra people. He said Tuesday that the break in shuttle flights have led to thestation being cluttered with excessive scientific equipment, leaving less spacefor the crew.
Krikalev voiced hope thatthe shuttles' return to flight would help to expand the station.
The station's crew is setto conduct several dozen scientific experiments, including medical andbiological research, studies in plasma crystals and space navigation.
Roberto Vittori said hisEneide scientific program included studies on possible links between spaceradiation and earthquakes.
Just as the station's nextcrew was wrapping up its training, Russia's space agency reminded NASA that itwould start charging money for U.S. astronaut rides on Soyuz ships startingnext year. The agency has sent a letter to NASA asking it to quickly solve theissue, according to its spokesman, Vyacheslav Mikhailichenko.
Krikalev has spent nearlytwo years in orbit, over five missions dating back to 1988, making him one ofthe world's most experienced space travelers. Phillips flew a 2001 shuttlemission, while Vittori spent 10 days on the international space station in2002.
Each had mascots to takealong.
For Vittori, it's a toyrabbit given to him by his wife 18 years ago. "It has flown with me when I wasa test pilot, it has been to space three years ago, and it will fly again inApril," he said.
CompleteCoverage: ISS Expedition 11