Russian, US astronauts blast off to space station

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AFP) – Two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut blasted off Friday for a resupply and restaffing mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Soyuz rocket lifted off on schedule from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe at 0404 GMT carrying US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Korniyenko.

Soyuz TMA-18 rocket with US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko blasts off. AFP photo

A biting wind whipped in off the plains as the rocket rumbled into life, spitting out a massive plume of fire and smoke before lurching upwards and disappearing into a cloudless sky.

Friends and family members of the astronauts cheered as the announcement came over the loudspeakers that the rocket had successfully reached orbit at 0414 GMT.

"Just a wonderful launch. Great preparation by the ground team to get the rocket ready. Just a super way to start the mission," William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, told AFP after the launch.

The Soyuz crew's two Russian members, Skvortsov and Korniyenko, are taking their first trip to space after waiting more than 12 years to be picked. Korniyenko is set to turn 50 while on the ISS.

Caldwell Dyson is the crew's most experienced member. She flew to the ISS in 2007 on the US Space Shuttle Endeavour and spent 12 days in space.

The mission is one of the last launches by a Soyuz rocket to the ISS before the US space shuttle program is mothballed later this year, after which responsibility for travel to the station falls entirely on the Russian rockets.

The first shuttle launch in 1981, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic first trip into space, is now seen as a defining moment of the Cold War space race.

Despite losing the shuttles Columbia and Challenger in a pair of disasters the programme was considered a resounding success and soon took on the lion's share of responsibility for transporting US astronauts.

A successor to the space shuttle is scheduled to take off no earlier than 2015.

Caldwell Dyson had called the upcoming trip "bitter-sweet" due to the imminent loss of the shuttle, but the mood early Friday morning ahead of the launch was one of excited anticipation.

Caldwell Dyson, who sings in a band with fellow NASA astronauts as a hobby, sang "The Road" by country crooner Garth Brooks from behind a thick pane of glass that protected the astronauts from air-borne germs.

The song, which moved several listeners to tears, was an appropriate choice, said Pamela Leora Spratlen, deputy head of mission for the United States embassy in Astana.

"It's about chasing your dreams, and not letting anything stop you," she told AFP as the astronauts departed the building just as dawn broke in a pale orange glow over Baikonur.

A throng of well-wishers shouting "Good luck!" in Russian surrounded the bus to the rocket as the astronauts climbed onboard, to which Skvortsov responded by pumping his fists high over his head in triumph.

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