BAIKONUR COSMODROME, KAZAKHSTAN
When it comes to space cowboys, few have as much experience as the three men lifting off today on "Expedition One" to inaugurate permanent residence on the International Space Station.
But how do one astronaut and two cosmonauts from two formerly rival nations with very different traditions of space exploration, get along?
"We don't need to talk to each other" to communicate, says Yuri Gidzenko, the launch commander and veteran of a 179-day mission on the Mir space station.
Yes, nods American Bill Shepherd, overall commander of the mission, separated from a crush of journalists by germ-proof glass during the crew's final press conference yesterday.
"Sometimes we do things without even exchanging words," says Mr. Shepherd, a US Navy captain and SEAL, who has already flown three shuttle missions. "I've had a lot of practice in four years, in difficult situations and in training."
All men on board speak fluent English - the official language of the mission - and Russian. But Russian mission controllers are not fully fluent in English, so Russian will be the daily fare. A hybrid, dubbed "Runglish," may also be used.
Adding to the depth of experience - and therefore the sense of calm that only past challenges and triumph can bring - is Sergei Krikalev, the Russian flight engineer and veteran of four space flights - including two US Space Shuttle missions - seven space walks, and 484 days in space.
"The biggest surprise for me has been how close and how common the work of astronauts and cosmonauts really is," says Mr. Shepherd. "And also how far apart, sometimes, the technical aspects and the management of politics of various countries has been."
The space station, Shepherd says, is "the next chapter after a long period of the cold war ... It needs to be a model, for how humans need to work in space, to enable going back to the moon, and other expeditions farther away from Earth."
"The mission and the program is the keystone for the future of human exploration in space," he adds, his friends and fellow space travelers nodding in agreement. "What more can you say?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society