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American Readies for Ride to Mir on Russian Rocket

By Sonni Efron
Los Angeles Times

After saying "do svedaniya" to his wife, three sons and adopted Russian cat, America's first cosmonaut prepared to blast off early Tuesday aboard a Russian rocket to spend three months on space station Mir.

"This program in my view has demonstrated very well that the two sides can work together smoothly," said U.S. astronaut Norman E. Thagard, 51, predicting that Russians and Americans will "do many great things in space together."

"Given what the costs of space exploration are these days, we need to," Thagard said at a farewell news conference with his two Russian colleagues: Mir 18 flight commander Vladimir N. Dezhurov, 32; and engineer Gennady M. Strekalov, 54.

The Mir 18 mission, aimed at boosting the flagging fortunes of both the American and Russian space programs, is part of a four-year, $400million program of joint space flights and research.

The program gives Russia financing to keep its cash-strapped program from withering. America will buy Russian equipment that would be costly to develop from scratch and gets the chance to conduct experiments on the space station it has long wanted but has been unable to afford.

The Mir missions are only the precursor to the international space station, an orbiting research laboratory to be jointly built and owned by Russia, the United States, the European space agency, Japan and Canada. If all goes well, the first components will be launched in November 1997, and by June 2002 the space station will be ready for permanent human habitation.

But in a sign that Cold War sensibilities still linger, Russian Independent Television (NTV) on Sunday reported that Ken Cameron, a U.S. astronaut taking part in the Mir program, had been expelled from Russia for spying.

At the Baikonour Cosmodrome on Monday, NTV reporter Alexander A. Gerasimov said he stood by his story.

But a Russian official at the Baikonour Cosmodrome dismissed the report as "ridiculous"; visiting U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

officials said they had heard no such allegations; the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the report; and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a statement denying it.

U.S. officials said that Cameron, who had spent four months last year at the cosmonaut training base in Star City, outside Moscow, recently returned to Russia for a weeklong visit but had returned to the United States, uneventfully, as scheduled. Cameron is to command the space shuttle Atlantis on its second trip to Mir in October.

At their parting news conference, Thagard and his colleagues spoke to journalists from inside a glass room, part of a brief quarantine to ensure the cosmonauts don't come down with the flu in space. They said they had no fears about the risks of spending three months on the Mir, which has suffered from chronic electrical troubles.

"This is my sixth mission, so if I thought it wasn't going to be successful, I wouldn't go," said Strekalov, adding, "We have prepared for every contingency."

Asked whether he was nervous about riding atop a tiny Russian rocket whose design has been virtually unchanged for 20 years, Thagard replied that the horizontal seating inside the Soyuz is so comfortable he might have trouble staying awake. "Actually, the fact that the Soyuz rocket has been used for many years reassures me," he added. "That's a good characteristic for a launch vehicle."

Thagard, a former Marine pilot, engineer and physician, and back-up U.S. astronaut Bonnie J. Dunbar, 46, a biomedical engineer, have spent a year in Russia preparing for the mission. They fielded questions in heavily accented but grammatically correct Russian and demonstrated enough command of the fiendishly difficult tongue to crack jokes.

Giggling with his crew mates, Thagard also said he intended to observe the peculiar traditions that Russian cosmonauts have built up over the years. The night before a launch, they always watch the classic Russian adventure film, "White Sun in the Desert." The next morning, the cosmonauts - women included - stop to relieve themselves on the tires of the vehicle carrying them to the launch pad.

The doctor will spend much of his time on Mir studying the effects of weightlessness on the human body.

After long periods outside the earth's gravity, astronauts lose muscle and bone density. By understanding why, scientists hope to shed light on such earthly disorders as osteoporosis, anemia, high blood pressure and immunological deficiencies.