BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian rocket lifted off Monday carrying a Russian-American-Dutch crew toward the international space station on the third manned mission since the halt of the U.S. shuttle program.
Russian commander Gennady Padalka and American flight engineer Michael Fincke's mission will be to maintain the orbital outpost, whose assembly has been on hold since the February 2003 Columbia disaster. Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands is going on a nine-day mission to conduct experiments for the European Space Agency (search).
Their relatives and friends, standing with Russian and U.S. space officials at Russia's Baikonur (search) launch pad in the desolate steppes of western Kazakhstan, craned their necks and squinted in the sunshine to follow the Soyuz-FG booster rocket's trajectory after the 7:19 a.m. lift off.
"Sitting on a ball of fire, going to heaven, what more can you ask for a human being?" said Fincke's father, Edward. "It's more than you can wish for. It was overwhelming."
When the rocket disappeared in the sky, all eyes were glued to a monitor showing the inside of the space capsule.
A fuzzy, stuffed animal swung on a string above the astronauts' heads — both a talisman and an indicator of when they reached weightlessness.
The Russian control team reported every 10 seconds of the first crucial nine minutes of the flight — the time needed to reach orbit — on the work of the rocket's engines and control systems. All worked smoothly.
The Soyuz TMA-4 (search) spacecraft is expected to dock with the ISS on Wednesday morning.
Padalka and Fincke, who were initially trained to fly on a U.S. shuttle, are to conduct two spacewalks during their 183-day stint on the space station.
Kuipers is scheduled to return April 30 with the station's current crew, U.S. astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, who have been in orbit since October.
Fincke, a 37-year-old native of Pittsburgh, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and has logged more than 800 flight hours in more than 30 types of aircraft.
Monday's launch came amid increasingly frequent complaints from Russia that its efforts to keep the space station manned at the expense of its own space programs are underappreciated.
"We have fulfilled all our obligations," Sergei Gorbunov, the chief spokesman for Russia's space agency, said in Baikonur on Sunday.
"Russia is taking off its last pair of pants, while the United States and Japan are cutting down their (space) budgets," Gorbunov said. "This cannot last long."
Burdened with the obligation of keeping the station afloat, Russia's poorly funded space agency has frozen the construction of its own station segment and some commercial projects, including selling space trips to rich tourists.
Michael Baker, NASA's ISS program manager for international and crew operations, said the U.S. space agency hoped to have shuttles flying again by March 2005.
NASA deputy administrator Fred Gregory said Monday in Baikonur that shuttle flights, when they resume, will primarily be used to complete the station and that crew transfers would still depend on the Russian spacecraft.
Gregory said NASA and Russian space officials will meet this summer to discuss a possible increase of Soyuz flights.
The move would require more money, but Gregory said "at this point, it was a bit too early" to say if the United States will help Russia fund Soyuz launches.
"There has to be an assumption that funding will come from somewhere," he added.
The first post-Columbia launch was April 26, 2003, carrying American astronaut Edward Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. The next was Oct. 18, 2003, carrying Foale, Kaleri and Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque.