Russian Rocket Blasts Off for Space Station

A Soyuz rocket blasted into the skies over the Central Asian steppe on Thursday, hurling Brazil's first astronaut and a Russian-American crew into orbit for a mission to the International Space Station.

The Russian Soyuz TMA 8 shook the ground as it lifted off just after dawn from the Kazakh desert launch pad, taking Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeffrey Williams to the station for their six month-stay.

Also on board was Brazil's first man in space, Marcos C. Pontes, who will return on April 9 with the station's current crew, Russian Valery Tokarev and American Bill McArthur.

Observers at Russian Mission Control outside Moscow burst into applause after the spacecraft reached near-Earth orbit, about 10 minutes after its 6:30 a.m. launch from the Baikonur space platform.

A video camera aboard the Russian spaceship showed Brazil's Pontes grinning broadly, giving a thumbs-up and pointing to his country's flag on the left arm of his spacesuit.

Back at Baikonur, his wife and daughter were surrounded by about 150 other observers, who craned their necks as the rocket climbed.

"I was crying during the launch because his dream came true," said Pontes' 15-year-old daughter, Ana.

Communication troubles dogged the early moments of the Expedition 13, hampering the transmission of data. Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov told the Interfax news agency the problems occurred in the ground control network.

"Several information transfer channels were disabled," Solovyov was quoted by Interfax as saying. "The problem has now been fixed."

The Soyuz TMA 8 spacecraft is due to dock at the station early Saturday. Vinogradov, commander of the crew, said they would carry out more than 65 scientific experiments during the mission, including some to test human reaction to prolonged space travel.

Vinogradov and Williams are 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.

"It's a new beginning for the space station," NASA official Kirk Shireman said after watching the launch.

The American space program has depended on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery to the space station since the Columbia broke apart upon re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The shuttle Discovery visited the station in July but had problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank.

Pontes trained in the United States and had been scheduled to fly to the space station aboard a U.S. space shuttle — plans that were scrapped after the Columbia disaster. Brazil and Russia then opened talks that eventually led to Pontes' chance to be placed into orbit.

Pontes beamed as he told reporters Wednesday of his hope that everyone in Brazil would share his pride in having a chance to take part — and would watch as the national flag soared into space.

"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."