BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian, an American and an Italian soared into space atop a Soyuz (search) rocket Friday, greeting the dawn over Central Asian steppes as they hurtled toward an orbital rendezvous with the International Space Station.
The space ship is expected to dock with the station Sunday, after which Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev (search) and American John Phillips (search) will replace the ISS crew. Their six months on the orbiting station will include welcoming the first U.S. space shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster two years ago.
As the sun rose over Russia's base at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Soyuz-FG rocket soared into the sky on a plume of exhaust, colored pink, purple and orange by the dawn's rays. Thousands of miles away, engineers at Russian Mission Control (search) outside Moscow applauded when an announcer confirmed that rocket had entered orbit.
The arrival of Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips signals the end of the six-month mission aboard the ISS for cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and astronaut Leroy Chiao. Along with Italian Roberto Vittori from the European Space Agency, they will return to Earth in 10 days.
Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov said the return to Earth for the three men — scheduled for April 25 — could be complicated by spring flooding in the steppes.
"I would not like it very much if the crew during the landing had to recall the survival lessons which we give them in the ocean," Solovyov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Russia's space program has been the station's lifeline for two years, delivering fresh scientists and supplies to the orbiting laboratory. Next month, however, the new crew will welcome a U.S. space shuttle to the station when NASA revives a shuttle program grounded after the Columbia disaster.
A tiny capsule that weighs only 6.5 tons (7 US tons) has been the only way of getting astronauts to the ISS since the Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, sparking a suspension of shuttle flights.
A key task for Krikalev and Phillips will be to observe the condition of the insulating tiles as the Discovery approaches the ISS, conducting a photo survey of the exterior of the shuttle while it is maneuvering prior to docking.
"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," Phillips said Thursday.
The 46-year-old Krikalev has logged 624 days in space on missions both to the ISS and the Russian space station Mir. At the end of the current mission, his sixth, Krikalev will have spent 800 days in space_ more than any other astronaut.
Before liftoff, a Russian Orthodox priest in black blessed the three men, raising a gold cross over their heads and sprinkling them with holy water. The three men stood solemnly as the prayers were said, pictures from Russian state television showed.
Phillips's wife Laura and daughter Allie watched as he celebrated his 54th birthday with the liftoff from the remote, wind-swept Baikonur base on the Kazakh steppes.
"I didn't know what to expect, but the sunrise with the beautiful rocket launch, it was just outstanding," said Laura Phillips as she huddled with a crowd of officials bundled up against the cold, with temperatures just above freezing.