BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian spacecraft surged into clear skies over the Central Asian steppe Tuesday, carrying a three-man crew on their way to the International Space Station.
The engines of the Soyuz TMA-06M sent a powerful roar across the tinder-dry countryside of southern Kazakhstan as scheduled in the afternoon to deliver NASA astronaut Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin to the orbiting laboratory.
"I spoke with the astronauts after they reached orbit," Russian Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said. "They feel well. Everything went fine, despite the windy conditions."
After a two-day journey, the astronauts will join U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams, Russia's Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of Japan's JAXA agency.
The crew will face what may be the heaviest workload in the 12-year history of the space station over its first week.
Tasks will include handling the departure of a Dragon cargo vehicle and a spacewalk to carry out repair operations on the station.
Of the three in Tuesday's takeoff, only Ford has flown in space before. He spent two weeks as pilot of the space shuttle Discovery in 2009 on a mission to transport scientific equipment to the space station.
Tuesday's launch took place in unseasonably warm conditions and afforded the small crowd of space officials, well-wishers and family members of the astronauts at the viewing platform a clear sight of the rocket disappearing into the distance.
Within a few seconds of the launch, the first set of booster rockets detached as planned in a puff of smoke and fell to earth leaving a streak of black fumes in its wake.
An announcer informed the crowd of the craft's progress over a loudspeaker. After nine minutes, he announced the Soyuz had reached orbit, prompting a burst of applause for the successful start to the mission.
Televised footage showed the soft toy hippopotamus mascot dangling over the crew floating in weightlessness.
The crew will be tightly packed into the cramped Soyuz for 48 hours before finally docking with the space station.
For the first time since 1984, the manned takeoff took place from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome's launch site 31.
The pad that is normally used for such missions — the one where Yury Gagarin became the first human to travel into space in 1961, is being modernized. Site No. 1, better known as Gagarin's Start, was last overhauled in 1983.
The need for a back-up launch site became particularly acute with the decommissioning of the U.S. shuttle fleet in 2011, when Gagarin's Start became the only operating pad available for manned launches to the space station.
"We had no doubts that we could launch astronauts from here, but this has completely convinced us ... that from 2014 we will be sending people from the Gagarin Start," Popovkin said after congratulating space agency workers.
Manned launches from Baikonur take place about four times a year. Popovkin said launches of a modernized version of the craft that flew Tuesday, Soyuz-2, would begin from Gagarin Start in 2016.
Space officials have in recent weeks sought to address misgivings over billions of dollars spent to develop the International Space Station.
Ford said Monday that the bulk of the scientific benefits from the orbiting laboratory will be seen over the coming decade.
"The first 10 years were really intensive in the construction side of it, bringing all the pieces together and really getting the science enabled," Ford said.
Ford, who hails from Portland, Indiana, said the station would now enter its "utilization phase."
"We're going to learn the bulk of everything we know about the science that we're doing up there in the next decade," he said.
The growing capabilities of private space vehicle companies also have boosted hopes that NASA will be able to focus increasingly on more ambitious exploration projects.
Earlier this month, California-based SpaceX successfully delivered supplies to the space station on a craft called Dragon, the first official shipment under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. It calls for 12 such shipments.
The Ford, Novitsky and Tarelkin stay on the station also will see the first ever arrival of "Cygnus," a commercial cargo vehicle from the Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Virginia, scheduled for December.
"These companies ... are themselves learning a lot about getting to and from low-earth orbit and picking up that task so that NASA can indeed begin to concentrate on things out of earth orbit and going out further into our solar system," Ford said.