BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian Soyuz rocket streaked into the skies over the Central Asian steppe on Thursday, launching a U.S.-Russian-Brazilian crew on a mission to the international space station.
Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeffrey Williams were to stay on board the station for about six months. Brazil's first man in space, Marcos C. Pontes, will stay at the station for nine days before returning to Earth on April 9 with the station's current crew of Russian Valery Tokarev and American Bill McArthur.
Pontes promised Wednesday to make his country proud with its first space flight, and pledged to take both a flag and a soccer jersey into orbit in hopes it would bring his Latin American nation's team victory in the World Cup.
"I am taking the Brazilian flag — the most important thing that I am taking," he told reporters. "Actually, I am going with the flag, not the flag going with me."
The Soyuz TMA 8 spacecraft is due to dock at the station early Saturday. Vinogradov, who is the commander of the crew, said they would carry out over 65 scientific experiments during the mission, including some to test human reaction to prolonged space travel.
Vinogradov and Williams later were to be joined by European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, of Germany, when the space shuttle Discovery visits the space station in July. Once Reiter arrives, the station's long-duration crew will be three in number for the first time since May 2003, following the Columbia disaster that February.
The American space program has depended on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery to the space station since the Columbia explosion. The shuttle Discovery visited the station in July but had problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank.
Williams praised the cooperation between the Russians and the Americans, saying the two countries were united by the common vision of space exploration and by the goal of keeping a permanent presence in orbit following the Columbia accident.
"I think the partnership is stronger because of it," he said.
Vinogradov said that, in space cooperation, the Russians and Americans "have learned to work together."
Pontes began training in 1998 in the United States and had been scheduled to fly to the space station aboard a U.S. space shuttle. But those plans were scrapped after the Columbia explosion and Brazil opened talks with Russia about having Pontes travel 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.
Besides the flag, Pontes said 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 World Cup finals take place in Germany later this year.