BAIKONUR, November 5 (RIA Novosti) – A Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft was hoisted into place at a launch pad in Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome Tuesday morning ahead of a mission to take three astronauts to the manned International Space Station.
The crew, consisting of Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA’s Richard Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata of Japan, is set to blast off Thursday from the Russian-leased facility.
The Soyuz will be carrying an unlit Olympic torch, making for the most eye-catching, albeit unofficial, part of a grand relay taking place ahead of the Winter Games in and around the southern Russian resort town of Sochi in February.
The torch will be taken on a brief spacewalk Saturday by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, who are one of the six people currently aboard the space station.
The arrival of the Soyuz TMA-11M will take the number of people on the ISS to nine for the first time since October 2009 without the US shuttle, which was definitively retired in the middle of 2011.
The main purpose of the spacewalk will be to prepare the station for the arrival of a Russian Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module.
The outbound trio will remain on the International Space Station until May. Wakata,of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, is set to take the helm of the station for the final two months. That will mark the first time in history that the ISS has had a Japanese commander.
Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut with European Space Agency, Russia’s Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA’s Karen Nyberg are set to return to earth on Sunday.