Brazil's First Astronaut Taking Flag Along

A Brazilian astronaut promised Wednesday to make his country proud with its first space flight, pledging to take both a flag and a soccer jersey into orbit in hopes it will bring his beloved national team victory in the World Cup.

Marcos C. Pontes beamed as he described his excitement on the eve of Thursday's scheduled launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome for a mission to the international space station. Marcos said he felt a deep responsibility to carry out the mission well, and wanted to take along things important to his Latin American nation.

"I am taking the Brazilian flag — the most important thing that I am taking," he said. "Actually, I am going with the flag, not the flag going with me."

Engineers rolled the Soyuz-TMA 8 out to the launch pad on the Central Asian steppe on Tuesday as they went through final checks ahead of the mission that will carry Pontes, Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeffrey Williams into space. The mission will include experiments designed to see how humans react to prolonged space travel.

Pontes will stay on the space station for nine days and will return with the current Russian-U.S. crew on board the space station. Vinogradov and Williams will stay on board for about six months.

Vinogradov, who is the commander of the crew, said they will carry out over 65 scientific experiments during the mission.

The American space program has depended on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery to the space station since the 2003 shuttle disaster. The shuttle Discovery visited the station in July but had problems with its foam insulation on its external fuel tank. It is expected to fly to the station in July.

The mission marks an important moment for Pontes, who began training in 1998 in the United States and was scheduled to fly to the space station aboard a U.S. space shuttle. Those plans were scrapped after the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration suspended shuttle flights following the 2003 Columbia explosion.

After the disaster, Brazil opened talks with Russia about having him blast off on a Russian rocket. During a November 2004 visit to Brazil, Russian President Vladimir Putin also agreed that Russia would help Brazil resume its space program and restore its launch base, which was destroyed by a 2003 rocket explosion that killed 21 people.

In addition to the flag, Pontes said that he would take up a jersey for his soccer-mad nation, which has won the quadrennial international championship five times. With optimism, he predicted it would honor the "six-time champions of the world, the Brazilian football team."

The next World Cup finals take place in Germany later this year.