When NASA discontinues the Discovery program in 2011, the 43-year-old, Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft will be the last physical link between Earth and the International Space Station. So, let's get acquainted with what's about to be the most important, active spacecraft.
• The first manned Soyuz mission launched in 1967. Everything went great with the mission, until it was time for it to return home. The craft crashed upon reentry, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in the process.
• Suffering only two fatal incidents in 4+ decades of use, the Soyuz is considered to be the safest spacecraft in existence.
• The Soyuz only houses three people which is extremely small by today's standards. By comparison, the Discovery shuttle is has a much larger cockpit/habitation space and housed crews of up to eight people in the past. Gizmodo guest blogger and NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao detailed what it was like to fly in one, and apparently it's cramped. Real cramped.
• Leroy also says the engines are so smooth, you can barely tell it's lifted off when you're riding inside.
• Despite the fact that Soyuz crafts can't be reused, they're considered extremely cost effective (for a spacecraft)
• Once the Soyuz is up in orbit, it takes two whole days for it to catch up to the ISS. It only takes 3.5 hours for it to return to Earth.
• Since 2003, the Soyuz has served as the official emergency escape craft of the ISS, docked to the station at all times.
• If docked, the Soyuz can remain in space up to 200 days. It can orbit the earth for over four days.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia