BAIKONUR, Kazakstan - Barricaded behind glass to avoid germs, the first commander of the international space station made a pitch Monday for a name for the place he will call home for the next four months.
NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd also found himself defending his appointment as skipper on the eve of his historic launch and expressed his keen desire to get started on a mission that's been in the works - and on hold - for years.
"I'm anxious to get started, get into space and start operations," said Shepherd, sporting a fresh crewcut that ought to last quite a while in orbit.
He borrowed a line from the world's first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin. "Gagarin said it all - Poyekhali." That means: "Let's Go."
As for a name for the space station, Shepherd turned to the nautical history he loves.
"For thousands of years, humans have been going to sea on ships," the 51-year-old Navy captain and former SEAL told reporters jammed on the other side of the glass wall.
"People have designed and built these vessels, launched them with a good feeling that a name will bring good fortune to the crew and success to their voyage. We're waiting for some decision from our managers as to whether we will follow this tradition or not."
Cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev sat next to their space station skipper as the Russian space program's top commission formally approved their launch Tuesday on a mission that NASA considers every bit as important as the Apollo moon landings.
"It's definitely the beginning of a new era in human space flight," said Michael Baker, a NASA manager who took part in the proceedings. "From now on, I think that all of our endeavors in space, human endeavors, will be joint. It's a worldwide effort."
Sixteen countries are participating in the $60 billion-plus project, widely considered to be the largest technological enterprise ever undertaken on a global scale.
NASA is particularly thrilled. The space agency sent about 100 employees to the Russian space program's Baikonur Cosmodrome in central Asia to witness the launch.
It is America's first space station since the 1970s Skylab and, unlike that early orbiting outpost, holds the promise of people living continuously in space, beginning with Tuesday's launch. It's also the culmination of the space station proposed by President Reagan in 1984.
"This mission, and this program, is the keystone for the future of human exploration in space. What more do you want to say?" Shepherd said.
The space station, parts of which have been in orbit for two years, is far from perfect, Shepherd noted. But, he added: "It needs to be the model for how human beings' work in space, to enable going back to the moon and other expeditions farther than Earth."
Shepherd and his crew have been training for NASA's so-called Expedition One mission for nearly five years. The three men will turn on all the life-support systems once they arrive at the 240-mile-high outpost on Thursday and start tackling all the maintenance and repair work.
They're well aware that everything they do will set the pace, and mood, for years to come. NASA hopes to finish building the space station in 2006 and to operate it as a first-class laboratory until at least 2016 and hopefully long beyond.
The things "that are being done on our flight will continue for many, many years," said Krikalev. "So it's a lot of responsibility on our crew."
Krikalev and Gidzenko, both Mir veterans, have considerably more space experience than Shepherd, even though they're a decade younger. NASA was adamant, however, that the first space station commander be American and that that astronaut be Shepherd.
Shepherd, an astronaut since 1984, flew on three space shuttle flights before moving into space station management in 1993, the same year Russia joined the international space station project.
His longest, and most recent, space mission lasted 10 days back in 1992. This mission, by comparison, will last a minimum 115 days. Space shuttle Discovery is supposed to drop off a replacement crew and bring Shepherd and company back at the end of February.
During Monday's news conference, Shepherd was diplomatic when asked about the disgruntlement among some Russian space workers regarding the choice of commander. A Russian engineer, for example, was grumbling to American reporters at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Sunday about the fact that an American is in charge of the space station that will replace Mir.
"A good leader sometimes has to be a good follower," Shepherd said. "We're a team in orbit. Everybody understands that."
Krikalev, one of the world's most experienced spaceman, isn't complaining. Neither is Gidzenko, the commander of the Soyuz spacecraft that will link up with the space station. Gidzenko is a fill-in for a veteran Russian cosmonaut who refused to work for an American with no space station experience.
If the subject bothers him, Shepherd doesn't show it. He's more vocal about the long string of delays that kept him grounded for more than two years. Until cash-strapped Russia launched the space station's living quarters in July, more than two years late, everything was on hold.
"There were many times where we all felt like we should be doing something else," Shepherd said.
But, he quickly noted, he's glad he hung in there.
An interactive graphic on the international space station: http://wire.ap.org
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