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Upgraded Soyuz blasts off on flight to space station

Veteran shuttle commander Mark Kelly, Alexander Kaleri, and Oleg Skripochka blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and head for a Saturday docking with the International Space Station.

An upgraded Soyuz spacecraft carrying veteran shuttle astronaut Scott Kelly, Soyuz commander Alexander Kaleri, and flight engineer Oleg Skripochka blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan late Thursday, kicking off a two-day flight to the International Space Station.

The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft blasts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying an American astronaut and two cosmonauts to the International Space Station. NASA TV

Under a dark, predawn sky, the launcher's main engines roared to life on time, and the Soyuz rocket, trailing a sky-lighting plume of fiery exhaust, climbed away at 7:10:55 p.m. EDT (23:10:55 GMT).

Looking on with family members, dignitaries, and U.S. and Russian space officials was Mark Kelly, Scott Kelly's twin brother, who will command the shuttle Endeavour during a space station assembly flight in February. If the schedule holds up, it will be the first time "two blood relatives have ever been in space together," Kelly said in a prelaunch NASA interview.

"It's exciting," he said. "I've obviously known my brother a really long time, and we're great friends, and it's a real privilege to share the experience with someone you're so close to."

During launch Thursday, live television views from inside the spacecraft showed Kelly in the Soyuz TMA-01M's right seat, with Kaleri in the center seat, and Skripochka, making his first flight, to his left. All three appeared relaxed and in good spirits as the rocket accelerated toward orbit; they were smiling and occasionally waved at the camera.

"Thank you so much for all your hard work," Kaleri told supporters before launch. "We are prepared to start the work, and with all the responsibility we have, I must say we are excited about this, especially for those who do this for the first time. Thank you."

Eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the upgraded Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft slipped into its planned preliminary orbit. Moments later, its two solar panels and antennas unfolded, and Russian flight controllers said the spacecraft was in good shape as it set off after the International Space Station.

If all goes well, Kaleri will oversee an automated docking at the upward-facing port of the Russian Poisk compartment atop the station's Zvezda command module around 8:02 p.m. Saturday (00:02 GMT Sunday).

The Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft features a variety of avionics and computer upgrades that are being flown for the first time.

"The improvements are rather significant," Kelly said in a NASA interview. "The displays that the cosmonauts and myself...use to control the vehicle have been upgraded to make flying it easier. It's less operator intensive. But the main and most important change is they have a new, what we would refer to as a flight control computer."

The software used to control the spacecraft was tested in unmanned Progress supply ships, "but the Progress doesn't re-enter the same way as the Soyuz does," Kelly said.

"So when we come home in March, it'll be the first time that this new flight control computer and the entry software will be demonstrated in flight."

Kaleri, Kelly, and Skripochka will join Expedition 25 commander Douglas Wheelock, Shannon Walker, and Fyodor Yurchikhin aboard the station, boosting the lab's crew size back to six. Wheelock, Walker, and Yurchikhin are scheduled to depart at the end of November.

Three fresh crew members--Dmitri Kondratyev, Catherine Coleman, and Paolo Nespoli--are scheduled for launch Dec. 13, assuming an investigation into an apparent shipping mishap does not reveal any significant damage to their spacecraft.

As of this writing, it's not yet clear if that flight will stay on schedule, but Russian managers believe they can switch to a backup spacecraft, if necessary, and still launch in December.