Originally created 01/30/98

Two Russians, Frenchman blast off for Mir space station



BAIKNUR, Kazakstan -- Two Russians and a Frenchman blasted off Thursday evening for the Mir space station, where they expect to work on at least two repair jobs that previous crews have been unable to fix.

Less than 30 minutes later, the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour, which was linked to the Mir for five days, pulled away and began its return to Earth. The shuttle's crew includes David Wolf, the American who spent four months on the Russian space station.

Mir, which will mark its 12th anniversary in space next month, has been relatively calm recently following last year's series of near disasters.

But it still has a leaky hatch door and one disabled module awaiting the new crew. Neither repair is essential to keep the Mir in working condition, but Russian space officials still see the jobs as important.

Russians Talgat Musabayev and Nikolai Budarin and Frenchman Leopold Eyharts lifted off into the nighttime sky without a hitch from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the former Soviet republic of Kazakstan.

Eyharts' pregnant wife and parents were on hand to see him off.

Traveling in a Soyuz capsule, the trio entered orbit nine minutes after takeoff. But it will be two days before they align themselves with the Mir, 240 miles above Earth.

A rendezvous is planned for Saturday when the new crew will hook up with American astronaut Andrew Thomas, who arrived last weekend on the U.S. space shuttle.

Eyharts will work in orbit for three weeks before returning to Earth in February with the current Russian cosmonauts on Mir, Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov.

Thomas is the seventh and final American to live on Mir. He plans to stay on the station until a U.S. space shuttle takes him home in May.

Budarin and Musabayev are due to perform at least six spacewalks during their stay on the Mir.

Space officials believe they will be able to fix a leaky hatch door which has been a nuisance since November. However, the area just inside the door is sealed off from the rest of the space station and therefore the problem is not considered serious.

A more daunting challenge will be trying to patch up the Spektr module, which lost pressure in Mir's collision with a cargo ship last June. It has been sealed off from the rest of the station since then.