BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Soyuz rocket blasted into the cosmos as the sun rose over the Central Asian steppes today, carrying a Russian, an American and an Italian to the international space station a month before NASA revives a shuttle program grounded after the Columbia disaster two years ago.
For more than two years, Russia’s space program has been the only lifeline to the station, delivering fresh scientists and supplies to the orbiting laboratory.
Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips were headed for a six-month stay on the space station while their European Space Agency colleague, Italian Roberto Vittori, was to return in 10 days with the current station crew.
Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao have been aboard the space station since October.
Jets of fire and billows of smoke accompanied the liftoff, which was being monitored at Russian Mission Control outside Moscow. Applause rippled through the hall as space engineers watched the launch on a large screen and an announcer said the Soyuz had reached orbit with all systems working fine.
The three-stage rocket propelled the Soyuz to 13,420 mph within 7 1/2 minutes of the launch.
As the Soyuz crossed the horizon, Mission Control wished Phillips “Happy Birthday” in Russian. He turned 54 today.
His wife, Laura, and teenage daughter, Allie, watched at Baikonur Cosmodrome with a crowd of officials bundled up against the cold. Temperatures were just above freezing.
“I had never seen a Soyuz launch before, and I agree it was very beautiful. I didn’t know what to expect, but the sunrise, with the beautiful rocket launch … it was just outstanding,” Laura Phillips said, adding that she already missed her husband.
A main task for the new crew will be welcoming a U.S. space shuttle to the station after a two-year absence.
Since the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board, shuttle flights have been suspended. NASA aims to revive shuttle flights as early as May 15, with a mission by Discovery to the space station.
The Columbia disaster was caused by a chunk of insulating foam that fell off the tank during liftoff and gashed the shuttle’s wing.
In Cape Canaveral, Fla., NASA on Thursday successfully tested a redesigned external fuel tank, which underwent major modifications after the Columbia disaster. NASA removed foam from some places on the tank and applied the insulation differently to prevent big chunks from breaking off.
Heaters also were installed to prevent the formation of ice at spots that no longer have insulation.
A key task for Krikalev and Phillips will be to observe the condition of the insulating tiles as the Discovery approaches the space station.
“Our particular part will be conducting a photo survey of the exterior of the shuttle while it is maneuvering immediately below us prior to docking,” Phillips said Thursday at Baikonur, in the windswept steppes of the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
“I think the eyes of the world are going to be upon the shuttle crew at that moment, and will be a little on us, too, and I’m really proud to be a part in that.”
Krikalev said he expected to be moved by the shuttle arrival.
“When the shuttle comes it will be a big celebration. They’re not only bringing material for experiments, material for the station, food, water, gas, but they’re bringing emotions,” he said, speaking like the others from behind glass in a separate room to avoid contamination.
Vittori, although he will not be aboard for the shuttle arrival, expects to spice up the space station’s cuisine.
“One of the particularities of this mission is that we also have some food coming from Italy,” he said. “The idea is to bring a little flavor of Italy to the international space station.”
Krikalev, at 46, is one of the most experienced space flyers, having made missions both to the international space station and the Russian space station Mir. At the end of the new mission, he will have spent more time in space than any other human – more than 800 days.