World space station blasts off to leave rows behind

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A RUSSIAN Proton rocket blasted off from the steppes of Central Asia yesterday amid a vast cloud of dust and an even larger gust of relief that swept from Moscow to Houston.

The Proton successfully carried into orbit the first module of the International Space Station (ISS) - the most ambitious building project undertaken - after months in which the space laboratory often seemed doomed to failure before it got off the ground.

As the Russian-built module sliced through the cloudy skies above Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome yesterday, the 16 participating nations - including Britain - could temporarily forget the cost overruns, squabbles and delays that bedevilled the run-up to take-off.

Although more than a year behind schedule, lift-off wasimmediately hailed as an historic symbol of the transition from the Cold War to an era of international co-operation.

Many of the US-led project's problems flow from Russia's economic collapse. The ISS is the last hope of Russia's crippled space industry; 80,000 jobs over the next 15 years are estimated to hinge on its success.

The navigation, communications and propulsion module, called Zarya, will circle between 310 and 217 miles above Earth. It is the first of more than 100 components that will be shipped into space to form a station four times the size of its predecessor, Mir, and cost more than $40bn (pounds 24bn) - the lion's share of which will come from the US.

The estimated completion date for the ISS - which will have an interior equal to the size of two jumbo jets - is 2004.

Yesterday was a euphoric moment for the space agencies of US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Russia. But the head of Nasa, Dan Goldin cautioned: "We have only 44 launches to go and about a thousand hours of space walks and countless problems and countless issues. But if we ever want to leave Earth's orbit, we're going to have to figure out how people live and work safely and efficiently with ever-increasing productivity in space. We cannot do it on the ground."