A Russian Soyuz rocket carrying three crew members bound for the International Space Station blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan today, kicking off a two-day flight to catch up and dock with the orbital lab complex.
With Russian commander Dmitry "Dima" Kondratyev at the controls, the booster's first-stage engines roared to life on time and the rocket lifted off at 2:09:25 p.m. EST (1:09 a.m. Thursday local time), quickly climbing away from the same pad used by Yuri Gagarin at the dawn of the space age 50 years ago next April.
Live television shots from inside the cabin showed Kondratyev in the capsule's center seat, flanked by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli on his left and NASA astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman on his right. All three appeared relaxed and in good spirits as the rocket streaked toward space.
Nine-and-a-half minutes later, the Soyuz TMA-20 capsule separated from the rocket's third stage and slipped into its planned preliminary orbit. Solar arrays and antennas deployed a few moments later and Russian flight controllers said the spacecraft was healthy and on course for a docking with the International Space Station around 3:12 p.m. Friday.
"Everything's good on our side. Congratulations on the successful orbital insertion," chief flight director Vladimir Solovyov radioed after engineers assessed telemetry. "Everything looks good, everything pressurized as it was supposed to, and the telemetry is nominal."
"OK, thank you for your good wishes," Kondratyev replied.
Nespoli, a European Space Agency astronaut who flew aboard the space shuttle in 2007, is serving as flight engineer for the trip to the station, assisted by Coleman, a mother and retired Air Force colonel who flew aboard the shuttle in 1995 and 1999 and holds a doctorate in polymer science and engineering. She celebrated her 50th birthday Tuesday.
"As the right-seater, I don't have as many duties (during launch) and so I have a chance to watch these two at work and it's fascinating to see them solve problems together, usually in Russian, some English. I'm not sure we ever actually know what language we speak together," Coleman said during a pre-launch photo opportunity at Baikonur.
"But we do those things together and like a family, a little bit like brothers and sisters. It's quite a feat and Dima is a supreme leader in that capsule. I think Paolo and I feel very privileged to fly with someone with such good skills. My mother is glad (he has) those skills as well!"
Kondratyev will oversee an automated docking with the space station's Rassvet mini-research module Friday afternoon. Waiting to welcome them aboard will be Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly, Alexander Kaleri, and Oleg Skripochka, who were launched to the station October 7.
"As soon as they get on board, my primary goal is to get them acclimated to the environment and get them comfortable enough to where they can work up here efficiently," Kelly told a reporter. "One of the first things we do is a safety briefing, make sure they're aware and reminded of all the safety training they've had, but see it from the perspective of being on board here. Really, just to get them comfortable and ready to work starting the following Monday."
The six-member Expedition 26 crew faces a busy timeline that includes research, normal maintenance, two Russian-segment spacewalks, and work to unload a variety of supply ships. A Japanese HTV cargo craft is scheduled to arrive in late January, followed by a Russian Progress supply ship, the shuttle Discovery in early February, and a European Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, at the end of the month that will deliver another load of supplies and equipment.
The shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to show up in early April along with another Progress later that month.
"There's a lot on our plate," Kelly said. "A lot of it is logistics, with these cargo vehicles coming up and preparing the space station for its future beyond shuttle and all the science, not only the science that we conduct now but the science we'll be able to conduct here for the next 10 years aboard the International Space Station."
Along with the government-sponsored supply ships and crew rotation flights, Coleman, Nespoli, and Kondratyev also may get a chance to oversee the first visit by a commercial cargo craft, the Dragon capsule developed by SpaceX. The company carried out aearlier this month and is pushing to combine the next two test flights into a single mission that would deliver supplies to the station next spring or summer.
"We will be very prepared if they decide to make that a docking mission," Coleman said. "Paolo and I have been training extensively for both the Dragon and the HTV, the Japanese supply vehicle. Both get captured by the robotic arm. They're different vehicles, but the principle is the same for our duties so we are, indeed, prepared for that."
Kelly, Kaleri, and Skripochka are scheduled to return to Earth in the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft on March 16, leaving Kondratyev, Coleman, and Nespoli behind as the core members of the Expedition 27 crew. They will be joined on April 1 by Alexander Samokutyaev, Andrei Borisenko, and Ronald Garan, scheduled for launch March 30 aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft.
Kondratyev, Nespoli, and Coleman are scheduled to return to Earth May 16.