A Russian Soyuz spacecraft lit up the sky above Central Asia today as it soared into space to ferry two Americans and one Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station.
The Russian Soyuz TMA-19 vehicle blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:35 a.m. Wednesday local time, though it was still Tuesday afternoon in the United States, where NASA flight controllers watched from Mission Control in Houston.
"It's going to be a great show tonight ... with clear skies, it's going to be beautiful," American astronaut Douglas "Wheels" Wheelock of NASA told reporters before climbing aboard the Soyuz capsule alongside his two crewmates.
Wheelock launched into space with fellow NASA astronaut Shannon Walker and veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who is commanding the two-day Soyuz trip toward the space station. They are due to dock at the station late Thursday at 6:25 p.m. EDT (2225 GMT).
The Soyuz blasted off from the same launch pad (and on the same day local time) that sent the first woman into space – cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova – 47 years ago. It is the 100th mission to launch to the space station since construction began in 1998.
"It's an honor to launch on her date, as well," Walker has said.
Yurchikhin chose the name "Olympus" – after Olympus Mons on Mars, the tallest peak in our solar system – as his call sign for the Soyuz flight, NASA officials said. This is Yurchikhin's third spaceflight.
The Soyuz TMA-19 spaceflyers are beginning a 5 1/2-month mission to the space station and will join three other astronauts already living aboard the outpost when they arrive later this week.
"We're very excited about it and we're ready to get started," said Wheelock, a U.S. Army captain, before launch. He is making his second trip to space on the mission.
Over the next six months, the astronauts and cosmonaut expect to perform several spacewalks to maintain and upgrade the $100 billion space station. They also expect to host NASA's two final space shuttle missions – currently scheduled for mid-September and late November – before the U.S. space agency retires the shuttles for good.
Walker is the only space rookie of the bunch, and said she was very happy, but a little bit apprehensive, before launch in video broadcast on NASA TV.
Walker also has a fan club. She is, after all, the first hometown astronaut for Houston – the home of NASA's astronaut corps – in the more than 40 years the Texas city has served as a hub for American human spaceflight.
"Go Shannon! Whooo!" Walker's supporters cheered in the video. "Go Wheels!"
Walker is married to NASA astronaut Andrew Thomas, a veteran of several spaceflights on U.S. shuttles and one months-long flight to Russia's Mir space station.
A NASA spokesperson said Thomas was "excited, thrilled nervous and yes, just a tiny bit jealous" as he prepared to watch his wife rocket into space without him.
When Yurchikhin, Wheelock and Walker arrive at the space station Thursday, they will double the orbiting lab's crew size back up to six people – its full strength.
Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson have been living aboard the station since April and are in the middle of their own six-month stint to the outpost.
The new station crewmembers said they were eager to join their crewmates, even as they traded jokes with children and space officials before liftoff.
Wheelock is also posting updates on his mission training and spaceflight on Twitter, where he writes under the name Astro_Wheels.
"Up, up the long delirious burning blue..." Wheelock wrote in his last Twitter post before launching into space. He was quoting the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot officer who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.