A Russian rocket carrying three astronauts blasted off in southern Kazakhstan on Friday, kicking off a tightly packed schedule at the International Space Station in the coming days.
The Soyuz craft carrying California native Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko soared from the Baikonur cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan in a carefully regimented operation that has been perfected over the decades.
At the scheduled time of 10:04 a.m. (0404 GMT), powerful booster rockets shattered the stillness of the immense and arid Kazakh steppe, propelling the Soyuz heavenward atop an iridescent flow of flames against the limpid blue sky.
Spectators gazed as the craft disappeared into a faint dot. They broke into applause when officials announced the Soyuz had entered into orbit.
The craft, which thundered into orbit at more than 8,000 miles per hour (13,000 kilometers per hour) about 10 minutes into the flight, will dock on Easter Sunday with the space station, orbiting about 200 miles (320 kilometers) above the Earth.
Live pictures broadcast from the craft showed expedition chief Skvortsov smiling as a toy duck nicknamed "Quack" dangled overhead. Once the craft entered orbit, the fluffy talisman began to float, demonstrating zero gravity.
"The vehicle is performing fine," Skvortsov was heard saying after a long communications disruption due to static. Caldwell Dyson didn't respond to questions from Russian mission control in Moscow asking how she was, apparently due to radio interference.
Before the pre-launch briefing early Friday, Caldwell Dyson — a lead vocalist in Houston-based all-astronaut rock band Max-Q — drew on her musical talents by regaling her friends, colleagues and relatives with a solo rendition of Garth Brooks' country hit "The River."
In a final statement to a commission of international space officials, Caldwell Dyson said in Russian: "As our captain said, we are ready."
Well-wishers and family crowded the bus taking the astronauts to the launch pad where Yuri Gagarin began the first human trip into orbit in 1961, taking pictures and pressing their hands against the window in final greetings.
Speaking at the observation platform after lift off, William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, praised how the launch had gone, calling it "super."
"This is an extremely positive crew and they're looking forward to their work," he said. "If we get the shuttle launched next week, it will be an extremely busy time for them after they get into orbit, but they're ready to go do their work."
Caldwell Dyson, Skvortsov and Kornienko will join the Russian commander Oleg Kotov, NASA astronaut Timothy J. Creamer and Soichi Noguchi of Japan on board the space station.
Within three days of their arrival, a seven-person crew aboard the Shuttle Discovery will dock at the station for a 13-day mission to transfer eight tons of research equipment and cargo. In a historic development, that period will mark the first time that four women have been in space contemporaneously.
The expedition led by Skvortsov, a seasoned military pilot who is making his maiden flight to space, will end in September, just as the United States' last-ever shuttle flight launches from the Kennedy Space Center.
With the winding down of the shuttle, the Soyuz — which launched the world's first satellite into space in 1957 — is set to take on the burden of carrying astronauts to and from the space station.
Dependance on the Russian-made spacecraft will increase over the next few years with only four launches left for the space shuttle before it is retired. That will leave NASA without its own means to send astronauts into space for the first time in half a century. Five manned Soyuz launches are planned for next year.
Gerstenmaier said NASA always has been reliant on the Soyuz and that his agency will use one of its remaining shuttle flights to transport a cargo storage facility for Russia.
"The next shuttle launch after this one that's coming up will carry the MRM-1 module up for the Russians," he said. "So here we're carrying a piece of laboratory for the Russians up in the shuttle, so again we work as a team and help each other with hardware."
Baikonur also has been at the heart of a heated controversy in recent weeks with Russian officials claiming that Kazakhstan has been hindering Russia's space activities.
Russia has a lease on the space center until 2050 and has paid around $115 million to Kazakhstan in rent since the agreement took effect in 2004.
Speaking after Friday's launch, Kazakhstan space agency chief Talgat Musabayev dismissed talk of any major differences with Russia.
"There is no crack in relations between us. If anyone can see a crack, they should get some cream and give that place a good smearing," he said.
Associated Press writer David Nowak contributed to this report from Moscow.
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