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Soviets Launch 2 Cosmonauts for Lengthy Stay in Space Lab

Times Staff Writer

Two Soviet cosmonauts blasted off early today and headed for a rendezvous with an orbiting space laboratory on a mission that could set an endurance record.

In an unusual display of confidence, the liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan was shown live on Soviet television at 38 minutes after midnight.

Moments after the gleaming white rocket rose smoothly off the desert floor, its crew reported that “everything’s fine” to mission control just outside Moscow.

May Seek Record

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Western experts said the cosmonauts, Flight Commander Yuri V. Romanenko and Flight Engineer Alexander Laveikin, are expected to try to break the 237-day space endurance record set in 1984 by a three-man Soviet team.

Soviet officials said only that the mission would last months.

The two cosmonauts are bound for the space lab Mir (Peace), which has been on automatic pilot since Soviet cosmonauts visited it for four months last spring and summer, returning to Earth on July 16.

Romanenko, 42, and Laveikin, 35, rode in a new TM spacecraft that was expected to dock with Mir by Sunday. Mir was launched a year ago and is expected to become the world’s first permanently occupied space laboratory.

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James Fletcher, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, acknowledged last week that the Soviet Union may have stolen the lead from the United States in manned flights.

U.S. Lags on Station

While the Soviet program has focused on an orbiting space station with permanent crews, the United States has concentrated on shuttle vehicles. But the United States has not sent up a space mission since January, 1986, when seven astronauts were killed in an explosion that destroyed the shuttle Challenger. There are no plans to launch an American space station until the middle of the 1990s.

Romanenko and Laveikin are expected to conduct astrophysical experiments and then greet another two-man crew in July, including a Syrian cosmonaut being trained in the Soviet Union. Next year, the Soviets are expected to send French and Bulgarian cosmonauts out to Mir.

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The record of 237 days was set by Leonid Kizim, Vladimir Solovyov and Oleg Atkov in 1984. Some Western space experts believe that the present mission will last as long as 290 days, nearly 10 months.


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