BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan, Nov. 20 -- A Russian Proton rocket carrying the 20-ton Zarya ('zah-RYAH') module, the first section of the International Space Station, has been successfully launched into space from Baikonur ('bye-koh-NOOR') Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, beginning a new stage in man's exploration of space. The three-stage Proton rocket lifted Zarya, which means 'dawn' in Russian, off the launchpad with a roar that rippled through the Central Asian steppe, as representatives of the world's leading space agencies and the international media looked on from a distance of four miles. Russian officials cheered as ground controllers announced that Zarya had reached its planned orbit almost 200 miles (321 kilometers) from Earth in less than 10 minutes. The Zarya has deployed its giant solar panels, which unfolded as planned and is capable of powering the module for up to 430 days. The Zarya is to be joined by a U.S.-built node, the Unity module, in early December when a U.S. space shuttle carries the second part of the station into space. Russia will send another giant module into space next summer. The 39-foot (12-meter) long, 13-foot (4-meter) wide Zarya cargo and control module will settle into a permanent orbit around Earth. The module is similar to parts of the 12-year-old Russian Mir space station, which will be scrapped next year. Construction of Zarya was partly financed by NASA after the Russian government ran out of money for the program, almost jeopardizing the entire project as work at the Khrunichev ('HROO-nee-tchef') plant ground to a halt.
The Zarya module was supposed to have a different orbit, closer to Mir, to allow for the transfer of scientific equipment from the old station, but the plan was dropped because it was considered too dangerous. The Russian Space Agency still hopes to use a U.S. shuttle to cannibalize the remains of Mir and return them to Earth, where the equipment will eventually be loaded into new modules and sent to the construction site in space. NASA has not confirmed that any shuttle flights to Mir will take place, leaving such an operation in doubt. Russian officials say the Zarya module is programmed to fly on its own for more than a year in case something goes wrong or delays the launch of other modules. The Zarya is equipped with large thruster engines and will be able to change orbit on command from ground controllers should the need arise. The International Space Station should welcome its first crew in the year 2000 and has a planned life of more than 20 years, compared with the 5-year lifespan that Mir's designers originally planned. ---NEWLN:Copyright 1998 by United Press InternationalNEWLN:All rights reservedNEWLN:---