Dutch astronaut blasts off on 11-day space mission
The Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers blasted off into space at 9.19am local time on Monday, April 19, from the Russian launch site Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Kuipers - the second Dutch astronaut ever and conducting his first mission in space - started his first orbit of the earth in the Soyuz TMA-4 spacecraft about eight minutes after launch.
He was accompanying Russian and spacecraft commander Gennadi Padalka and US astronaut Michael Fincke. The crew encountered no problems during the launch and the Soyuz capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) in two days time. The first Dutchman in space was former ESA astronaut Wubbo Ockels, who conducted a mission in 1985.
The 45-year-old Kuipers, a physician, will spend nine days at the space station conducting a range of experiments. His wife, two daughters and parents all travelled to Baikonur to watch the launch.
The Dutchman will return to the earth on 30 April with the present crew of the ISS, Russian Alexander Kaleri and American Michael Foale, both of whom have been in space since October 2003. After a short take-over period, Gennadi Padalka and Michael Fincke will continue to manage the Space Station for another half-a-year (183 days), including a vast scientific program of which 40 experiments are staged by Russian scientists. In particular, Gennady Padalka will grow the third generation of peas sowed in space. During the next six months the astronauts will have to perform two extravehicular walks, one in July and one in August, the first one to install the external equipment enabling the Station to receive the ATV spaceships, and the second one to replace the solar panels of the FGB module.
Kuipers is the flight engineer of the Soyuz capsule, meaning that he assists the spacecraft's commander, Padalka, during crucial moments such as the launch and docking with the ISS. He will also assist in its landing on earth. In the unlikely scenario that something should occur to the commander during the flight, Kuipers will be forced to take over command of the capsule.
During his 11-day mission, nine of them on the ISS, Kuipers will carry out an extensive experiment programme in the fields of human physiology, biology, microbiology, physical science, Earth observation, education and technology. Part of this programme started in Soyuz TMA-4 on the flight to the ISS, with Kuipers carrying out procedures for two human physiology experiments (MOP, MUSCLE) and two biology experiments (FLOW, KAPPA).
On arrival at the ISS, one of the first tasks for Kuipers after hatch opening is to transfer the experiment equipment and samples from Soyuz TMA-4 to the ISS. Other experiment equipment for the mission was transported to the ISS on an unmanned Progress supply ship on flight 13P, launched on 29 January this year.
Kuipers' activities on his first day on the ISS cover a majority of the various experimental fields. He will transfer biological samples between the European-built Kubik incubators. This will cover the biological experiments ACTIN, ICE-first, FLOW, KAPPA and TUBUL. He will carry out procedures for the human physiology experiments CIRCA, Motion Perception (MOP) and MUSCLE and take samples for the microbiology experiment, SAMPLE, an investigation into bacteria on the ISS. Within the area of technology demonstration he will activate the HEAT experiment in the European-built Microgravity Science Glovebox; the aim is to test a heatpipe in space in order to develop more effective heatpipes for use in cooling systems.
On the education side of the activities for day 1 on the ISS, Kuipers will install two university student experiments, BugNRG, which will investigate bacterial fuel cells in weightlessness, and GraPhoBox, a plant growth experiment. These were the winners of a competition organised by the Dutch government through the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Kuipers will also undertake the first part of an educational experiment called Seeds in Space, in which tens of thousands of schoolchildren are directly involved. These children, aged from 10 to 15, will be gaining hands-on experimentation experience by carrying out the same seed germination experiment at the same time as Andre Kuipers in space.
Kuipers - who is participating in the DELTA mission for the European Space Agency (ESA) - will also talk with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende on Wednesday, plus Education Minister Maria van der Hoeven - who witnessed the launch in Baikonur - and Economic Affairs Minister Laurens Jan Brinkhorst.
Both the Education and Economic Affairs ministries financially backed Kuipers' space mission by buying a seat in the Soyuz capsule for EUR 12.5 million. An ESA spokesman estimated the total cost of the mission at EUR 15 million.
In his last press conference before Monday's launch, Kuipers said on Sunday morning in Baikonur that he had "no trace of nerves".
"But undoubtedly my heart will soon beat quicker in the rocket," he said from behind a glass screen designed to protect him and his fellow crewmen from illness. "I am completely ready."
He urged his daughters to enjoy the launch and the fun things that would follow and said the atmosphere among crew was "very good".
Kuipers - who said he will miss hot showers while in space - took 1.5kg of personal luggage with him such as photos, sentimental items from loved ones and his first science fiction book. He also took some matured cheese with him.
Once his first mission and boyhood dream is completed, Kuipers said there will still be much to dream about, including a second mission, staying in space for a longer period of time and conducting a space walk.
Shortly before giving his press conference, Kuipers had appeared in the cosmonaut hotel before the Russian space travel State committee, where he was symbolically and formally given definite approval to accompany the Soyuz rocket into space