A Russian rocket lifted off flawlessly Saturday from the Baikonur cosmodrome, carrying the first space tourist, American Dennis Tito, and two cosmonauts to the International Space Station.
The Soyuz rocket blasted off from the barren steppes of Central Asia under sunny, blue skies, and disappeared into the heavens, trailing a red flame and leaving a faint contrail. The spaceship carrying Tito, a 60-year-old California businessman, was scheduled to dock with the ISS on Monday.
A television monitor inside the spaceship showed Tito, in a white spacesuit decorated with an American flag on the shoulder and a plexiglass helmet, grinning broadly.
A ground controller asked in Russian-accented English, "How do you feel, Dennis?"
"Khorosho," he replied in Russian — "Great."
Until the eve of the launch, U.S. and Russian space officials had argued behind the scenes about the overlap of the Soyuz rocket launch and the continued docking of U.S. space shuttle Endeavour at the space station.
NASA overcame computer problems aboard the station Saturday, allowing robot arm operations to be carried out. Their work helped clear the way for the shuttle to undock Sunday, which would allow the Soyuz to arrive on Monday as planned.
Russian space officials had refused to delay Saturday's launch but agreed to put the Soyuz in a holding pattern if the shuttle was still at the space station on Monday.
The eleventh-hour dispute over the timing of the blastoff followed a long wrangle over whether a tourist should go to the space station at all.
NASA tried to block the flight, insisting that Tito's presence could jeopardize the work of the ISS crew. But Russian officials said that Tito, a former rocket engineer who is paying up to $20 million for the trip, received the equivalent of a professional cosmonaut's training.
"The training is tough," Tito said Friday. "And it was made more difficult by political problems."
Tito said he had no apprehensions about the dangers of space flight — something he dreamed about since the Sputnik was launched in 1957.
"When you thought about something for 40 years, you visualize it in your mind," said the California millionaire. "So this is a dream come true."
From behind a glass screen set up to protect the crew from infection on the eve of the flight, Tito blew kisses Friday at his girlfriend, Dawn Abraham.
Abraham said she was inspired by the determination of Tito. "It makes me realize I can do anything. And anyone can do anything," she said.
Russia said it had been unwilling to postpone the Soyuz mission because the cosmonauts must replace the space station's escape craft, whose service lifetime expires at the end of the month. The Soyuz space ship that brings Tito and cosmonauts Yuri Baturin and Talgat Musabayev to orbit will serve as the new lifeboat and the three men will return on the older ship.
Yuri Semyonov, head of the state-controlled RKK Energia spacecraft construction company, said Friday that technicians had already begun flushing out the Soyuz' tanks for fueling, a process they did not want to interrupt.
"The Americans should solve the problems they're having on the ISS themselves," Semyonov said.