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Supply Ship Blasts Off For Space Station
Russian Progress Resupply spaceship headed to the International Space Station. Image to left: An unpiloted Russian Progress resupply vehicle against the black backdrop of space.

Think of it as a two-and-a-half ton care package.

The Expedition 7 crew of the International Space Station -- NASA astronaut Ed Lu and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko -- are expecting a shipment of supplies from home. Early Sunday morning, U.S. time, Russia launched an unmanned Progress spacecraft carrying 5,300 pounds of food, water, fuel and other things to help Lu and Malenchenko through their six-month stay on the Station. The shipment is due to arrive Wednesday, June 11.

The Expedition 7 crew members are on a somewhat unusual mission. Their job is to keep the Station and its science experiments running, while NASA works on returning the Space Shuttles to flight after the Columbia accident. The Shuttles have large amounts of room for cargo, and normally they also ferry astronauts and supplies to and from the Station. For now, NASA and its international partners are relying solely on smaller Russian spacecraft for transportation.

The Progress is basically an unmanned version of the Soyuz capsule. It was originally developed as a resupply ship for earlier Russian space outposts, such as the Mir. The Progress has about 233 cubic feet of cargo room, and the international partners plan to use just about every inch of it. In addition to food and water, much of what they're sending up is hardware: parts to fix the on-board treadmill, parts in case the water purification system breaks down, and more parts to fix an on-board toilet.

Lu and Malenchenko are also getting some office supplies, such as CD-roms and computer Ethernet cards. They're getting new clothes, personal hygiene items, and an upgraded first aid kit. They'll also get two tanks full of drinkable water, as well as food from Russia. Usually, NASA sends American-style meals to its astronauts on the Station, but Lu says he enjoys Russian cuisine just fine.

The crew won't get another supply shipment until late summer, when another Progress is set to launch. They won't see any other humans until their six-month stay is almost up. In October, the crew will hand over control of the Station to the Expedition 8 crew members, who will arrive at the Station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

The Progress's primary job is to haul cargo into space, but when that work is done, it will become something rather unique: a flying garbage truck. Crew members will fill the Progress with waste before sending it off toward the atmosphere, where it will become a giant trash incinerator.