BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian rocket blasted off Saturday carrying a three-man replacement crew bound for the international space station, standing in for a U.S. shuttle program that remains on hold because of the Columbia disaster.
The crew consists of an American, a Russian and a Spaniard, marking the second time a Soyuz capsule (search) has carried a U.S. astronaut to the space station since the Columbia disintegrated in February on its way back to Earth.
Russians and Americans burst into applause as the Soyuz-FG rocket blasted off on schedule from the once-supersecret Baikonur cosmodrome.
"It is huge — it is testament to our partnership and how deep it really is," NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe (search) said at the launch pad deep within the stark Kazakh steppe.
The launch came three days after China became the third nation to launch a manned spacecraft, joining Russia and the United States.
But while the Chinese launch was a symbol of national pride, Russia — which, as the Soviet Union, pioneered space travel — portrayed Saturday's flight as a demonstration of international cooperation.
The Soyuz spacecraft is taking the next U.S.-Russian replacement crew to the $60 billion space station, and giving a European Space Agency (search) astronaut a ride into space.
"Our Russian partners stepped up at a time when we needed them the most," O'Keefe said. "They are shouldering a particularly heavy burden and we are grateful for that."
NASA now depends on Russia to keep its astronauts flying. The Russian Soyuz, whose primary role was to serve as an emergency evacuation craft for the station, is now the only ship capable of carrying crews to and from the 16-nation space outpost.
"We are happy to have the opportunity to help our partners in the space station," said Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian Space Agency known as Rosaviakosmos (search).
American Michael Foale, making his sixth trip into space, is commanding the flight, which also includes Spaniard Pedro Duque and flight engineer Alexander Kaleri.
The crew blasted off under clear blue skies, shooting across the Kazakh steppe at the start of their two-day trip to the space station. Docking is scheduled for Monday.
Foale will become the only American to serve aboard both the Mir space station and the international space station. Foale and Kaleri are due to replace American Ed Lu and Russian Yuri Malenchenko, who have been in space since May.
Malenchenko, who left the planet a single man, will return as a husband after getting married aboard the space station during a live video hookup with his bride, who was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Duque, who will carry out a series of experiments in space, will return with Lu and Malenchenko in another Soyuz capsule in 10 days.
"It was just so beautiful," said Foale's wife, Rhonda. "It felt good and I'm glad he's having a good time up there."
While these new responsibilities have strained the Russian space program's budget, they also have boosted the prestige of an agency derided a few years ago for providing expensive junkets for rich space tourists.
Jean Jacques Dordain, the director the European Space Agency, praised the Russians for providing a path into space for other astronauts.
Russian launches are steeped in history and tradition. On Saturday, as the rocket roared into the sky trailing a tail of fire, the crowded grandstand applauded, then immediately fell silent. Every 10 seconds, controllers issued reports, declaring that everything was proceeding normally.
Almost 10 minutes after the launch, the Russian space agency announced to applause that the crew had reached orbit. Duque's mother, Andrea, sat quietly, clutching a cane, tears shining in her eyes.
"There are a lot of traditions involved," said Norm Thagard, the first American to travel aboard the compact Russia Soyuz in 1998.
Thagard, visiting Baikonur for the first time since his trip, said much looked the same.
The Russians say that is natural.
"When you've been doing it for four decades, if something works, you don't change it," said Vladimir Popov, who heads the Russian space unit responsible for rescue and search missions.