A U.S. astronaut departing this week for the International Space Station said Monday that the bulk of the scientific benefits from the orbiting laboratory will be seen over the coming decade.
It has been 12 years since construction began on the space station, and some have questioned whether the estimated $100 billion spent to date is worth the effort.
NASA astronaut Kevin Ford will blast off on a Soyuz craft from the Russian-leased Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan on Tuesday together with Russian colleagues Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin.
"The first 10 years were really intensive in the construction side of it, bringing all the pieces together and really getting the science enabled," Ford said at press conference on the eve of the launch, speaking from behind a glass screen designed to ensure the astronauts do not contract illnesses before their mission.
Portland, Ind.-born Ford said the station would now enter its "utilization phase."
"We're going to learn the bulk of everything we know about the science that we're doing up there in the next decade," he said.
Of the three men blasting off Tuesday, only Ford has spent any time in orbit. He spent two weeks in space as pilot of the space shuttle Discovery in 2009 on a mission to transport scientific equipment to the ISS.
The U.S. space program has been in a vulnerable position since the decommissioning of the U.S. Shuttle fleet in 2011, which left Russia's Soviet-designed Soyuz craft as the only means for international astronauts to reach the space station.
Some relief has come in the form of commercial cargo vessels.
Earlier this month, California-based SpaceX successfully delivered a half ton of supplies craft called Dragon to the ISS, the first official shipment under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The contract calls for 12 such shipments.
The departure of that capsule and a spacewalk to carry out repair operations on the station will be among the first operations to be handled by the incoming team.
"We really face a lot of tasks that we'll concentrate on right off the bat when we get aboard," Ford said. "After the spacewalk comes down, hopefully we'll have a little time to catch our breath."
U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams, Russia's Yuri Malenchenko, and Aki Hoshide of Japan, who have been at the ISS since mid-July, are scheduled to return to earth next month.
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