BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian-American-Dutch crew blasted into orbit Monday aboard a Russian spacecraft en route to the international space station on the third manned mission since the U.S. shuttle program was halted.
American Michael Fincke, Russian commander Gennady Padalka and Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands, representing the European Space Agency (search), waved farewell before boarding the Soyuz TMA-4 (search) spacecraft.
"Until we meet again," Padalka shouted, giving a V-for-Victory sign. Fincke flashed a thumbs up, while Kuipers held up a clenched fist.
Relatives and friends, standing with Russian and U.S. space officials at Russia's Baikonur launch pad in the desolate steppes of Kazakhstan (search), craned their necks and squinted in the sunshine to follow the rocket's trajectory after it took off.
"Sitting on a ball of a fire, going to heaven, what more can you ask for a human being?" Fincke's father, Edward, said. "It's more than you can wish for. It was overwhelming."
He and other relatives later gathered around a monitor transmitting images from inside the capsule. The three astronauts shook hands after the spacecraft entered orbit approximately nine minutes after the 7:19 a.m. liftoff, then were shown taking notes on clipboards. A fuzzy animal swung on a string above their heads.
The spacecraft was due to reach the international space station on Wednesday morning.
Padalka, 45, and Fincke, who were initially trained to fly on a U.S. shuttle, will spend 183 days on the space station, where they are scheduled to conduct two spacewalks.
Kuipers, a 45-year-old medical doctor, will return after nine days 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.
The crew will perform various experiments in space, including geographic monitoring, biotechnology and medical projects, said Joel Montalbano, NASA's flight director, who watched the launch from Russian Mission Control outside Moscow. Padalka, who is in the Russian air force, was to cultivate the fourth generation of peas to be grown on the ISS.
Russian Soyuz crew capsules and Progress cargo ships have remained the only link to the space station since the U.S. shuttle fleet was grounded following the loss of the shuttle Columbia during its return to Earth in February 2003.
But 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 Sunday in Baikonur.
"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."
Facing the need to mobilize its scarce resources to keep the station afloat while the U.S. shuttle fleet remains grounded, Russia had to freeze the construction of its own station's segment and some commercial projects, including selling space trips to rich tourists.
NASA has turned down the Russian space agency's proposal to provide financial backing for delivering more crew and cargo to the station.
Russia is now pressing NASA to agree to extend crew stints on the space station from the current six months to one year — a move that would allow Russia to make money selling rides to handsomely paying space tourists.
Michael Baker, NASA's ISS program manager for international and crew operations, said the U.S. space agency hoped to have the shuttle flying again by March 2005.
"We're still in difficult times with the station, with the shuttle being down," he said in Baikonur.
Under the original agreements between partners in the 16-nation space station — the United States, Russia, members of the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada — the station was supposed to be manned by six crew members already this year.
However, NASA is aiming at a three-member crew even after resuming shuttle flights.
"Six (crew members) has been a goal, but whether we get there or not is yet to be seen," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said in Baikonur.
Baker said six-person crews might be sent up in 2008.