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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Progress Ship Sent to Space Station

Russia launched an unmanned cargo ship on a flight to the international space station Sunday, a day after the loss of the shuttle Columbia threw future missions to the orbiting complex in doubt.

The Progress M-47 lifted off atop a Soyuz-U rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:59 p.m. Moscow time and successfully entered orbit a few minutes later, said Nikolai Kryuchkov, a spokesman at Mission Control outside Moscow.

The craft is scheduled to dock with the station Tuesday, delivering fuel, equipment and food and mail for the crew.

The long-planned launch came as stunned Russian space officials offered condolences to their American colleagues and said the disaster may put Moscow's cash-strapped space program under more pressure to deliver crews and supplies to the station.

"This is a big tragedy for us," said Vladimir Solovyov, head of Russia's mission control center. "We knew every member of the Columbia crew personally except for the Israeli astronaut."

Cosmonaut Yury Usachev, who commanded the space station's second crew in 2001, said he and his colleagues were feeling the tragedy as a "personal loss."

"I believe yesterday's tragedy will have a big influence on the future of the international space station," he told TVS television. "Probably for a certain amount of time the accent will shift to Russian systems of delivery of cargo and crews."

NASA plans had called for expanding the international space station during five shuttle flights this year, but space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said Saturday that flights would be put on hold until officials determine what caused the Columbia to break up.

The shuttles are used to deliver components of the space station to be installed. Shuttles can carry payloads of 100 metric tons, while Progress supply ships like the one launched Sunday can carry no more than 5 metric tons, Interfax said.

Russian space officials have said they are ready to pick up some of the slack in the meantime with their own spacecraft, including manned Soyuz TMA capsules, but that more would need to be built and funds are scarce.

"Of course we are all counting on space shuttles being used for both ferrying the crews to the ISS and delivery of fuel and other supplies to the station," said Valery Ryumin, a former cosmonaut and deputy director of the Energia space engineering firm.

"The way things stand now, these tasks can be handled by our Soyuz and Progress spacecrafts, but we would need money" to build new ones, he said.

Russia builds two of the spacecraft per year, said Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, Interfax reported.

Russia now has two Soyuz craft -- which, unlike the shuttles, cannot be used more than once, news reports said. Russia normally sends a Soyuz up to the station twice a year as a fresh escape capsule, with its Russian-led crew making a short visit and returning to Earth in the old craft.

James Newman, a former astronaut and head of NASA's coordinating office in Russia, said the Soyuz has a good track record.

"It is extremely safe. The Soyuz has a long and proud record of successful crew return," Newman said, adding that the current ISS crew of two U.S. astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut can use the Soyuz currently attached to the station as an escape capsule.

"They are always ready should there be a technical problem, any sort of emergency on the space station to use the Soyuz as a lifeboat," Newman said.

Gorbunov said Sunday that the next such Soyuz mission, planned for April, might be sent up unmanned to avoid depleting the food supply for the station's permanent crew, Interfax reported.

After dumping its Mir space station in 2001, the Russian space program has concentrated its meager resources on the 16-nation international space station. Russia has earned money by taking paying "space tourists" to the station.

Foreign Minster Igor Ivanov called U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday to express condolences, the Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

Outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a few Russians placed brightly colored flowers on a snowbank Sunday morning.