BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian space capsule blasted off Wednesday on a landmark mission that will double the crew of the international space station.
The Soyuz TMA-15 craft carrying Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Belgium's Frank De Winne soared into the hot afternoon skies over Kazakhstan's northern steppe on a two-day journey to the orbiting station.
The three will join the three crew members already on board the space station, giving the station six permanent members for the first time.
Scores of journalists, relatives and dignitaries, including Belgium's Prince Philip, watched from a viewing stand a mile (1.5 kilometers) away, applauding as the rocket roared into the sky.
"This is very important for Belgium. (De Winne) represents Europe and he represents Belgium. He represents international collaboration for peaceful application of science," the prince said.
Thirsk's three children also watched the launch, along with his 81-year-old mother Eva.
"It's rather exciting. He's doing what he's wants to do. And he's so happy about it. And I'm so happy for him," she said.
Footage broadcast by NASA TV from inside the Soyuz showed the three astronauts waving and giving the thumbs-up for the camera.
NASA says in the future, the space station could take as many as 13 people, as the crew hosts short-term visitors.
Astronauts from the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour worked late last year to remodel and expand the station, delivering a new bathroom, a kitchenette, an exercise machine, two sleeping quarters and a recycling system that converts astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water.
Thirsk, 55, will be the first Canadian to spend six months on the station, easily outstripping the time spent in space by other Canadian astronauts. In another first, De Winne, 48, will become the first European Space Agency astronaut to take command of the station in October, taking over from Russian Gennady Padalka.
Romanenko, 37, is the second Russian to follow his father into space. Yuri Romanenko flew as a space commander in the 1970s and 1980s.