The latest European astronaut was launched to the International Space Station today when the Marco Polo flight and its three-strong crew thundered into the midday skies in a perfect lift-off from the wide open plains of Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 12:26 local time (06:26 GMT).

Italian ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori, a former Italian Air Force test pilot, and his fellow crew members Yuri Gidzenko, the mission commander, and flight participant Mark Shuttleworth, South Africa’s first person in space, are due to dock with the Space Station in two days’ time on Saturday, 27 April at 09:52 (CEST); 07:52(GMT). The hatch between the two craft will be opened at 11:25 (CEST); 09:25 (GMT).

When the cosmopolitan crew arrive at the giant orbiting complex, some 400 km above the Earth’s surface, they will have already completed the mission’s prime task of delivering to the Space Station a new Soyuz spacecraft.

It is essential for the resident crew that the Soyuz ‘lifeboat’ remains in top condition in case of an emergency evacuation and so the regular ‘taxi’ missions, such as Marco Polo, are used to swap an older Soyuz spacecraft with a newer craft every six months.

Vittori, the first Italian astronaut to fly on a Russian Soyuz, is the third European astronaut to visit the Space Station and during his eight-day stay will work alongside the resident crew – Expedition Four commander Yuri Onufrienko and flight engineers Dan Bursch and Carl Walz – and oversee four European experiments.

These will look at the forces involved in moving around in microgravity and the effects on humans of cosmic particles during long missions, assess newly developed clothing, and test a non-intrusive blood pressure monitoring device.

Vittori hopes that his enthusiasm and excitement for space will inspire many of today’s young people. “The Earth is getting smaller and smaller, and we are now looking into space to learn more about mankind. Anyone who is willing to put their time, energy and effort into space will discover something new and exciting – no matter what age,” he said.

Once their tasks are completed, the Marco Polo crew are due to head back to Earth aboard the older three-seater Soyuz currently attached to the Space Station, with landing scheduled for Sunday, 5 May 2002 at approximately 10:00 local time (04:00 GMT).

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