The firstBrazilian ever to reach space and two International Space Station (ISS) astronautslaunched skyward late Wednesday on a two-day trip to the orbital laboratory.
Brazilianastronaut MarcosPontes and the 13thspace station crew rocketed into orbit after a flawless liftoff of theirRussian-built Soyuz booster from its Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in aCentral Asian desert in Kazakhstan.
Pontes leftEarth at 9:30 p.m. EST (0230 March 30 GMT) alongside ISS Expedition 13commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams aboard aRussian Soyuz TMA-8 spacecraft. Their mission began at the same historic padthat saw cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launch on the first-ever manned spaceflight onApril 12, 1961.
"We'refeeling good," said Vinogradov, a cosmonaut with Russia's Federal Space Agency,after the astronaut trio reached orbit. "We're smiling here."
A smilingPontes - a lieutenant colonel in the Brazilian Air Force - pointed to the Brazilianflag patch emblazoned on his Sokol spacesuit and waved to cameras inside theSoyuz capsule during the nine-minute trip to space. He will spend eight daysconducting experiments aboard the ISS.
TheExpedition 13 crew, however, has a six-month space mission ahead of them torelieve Expedition12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev, who haveserved aboard the ISS since their orbitalarrival in October 2005.
"It was abeautiful launch and a beautiful day for the space station," said KirkShireman, NASA's deputy ISS program manager, just after the successful spaceshot.
Beforetoday's launch, Pontes and the Expedition 13 crew shrugged off a pair of omens -a rare solareclipse and their mission's numerical moniker - which havetraditionally been hailed as unlucky.
"I thinkthe eclipse and the number 13 are an alignment of the stars for a very goodmission," Pontes said. "Everything we do is like a present to commemorate thisspecial date."
TheExpedition 12 astronauts aboard the ISS were able to photograph the eclipse'sshadow on Earth during the event.
Vinogradovand Williams have a busy six months ahead of them.
The twoastronauts hope to host two NASA space shuttle crews during their mission,beginning with the anticipated July arrival of STS-121- NASA's second test flight following the 2003 Columbia accident -aboard Discovery. That flight is also expected to return the ISS to its full,three-person crew size by delivering European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut ThomasReiter to the station.
"Probablythe most special part of the flight will be Thomas joining us on board," Williamssaid before today's launch.
ISS crewshave been limitedto two astronauts a piece since the Columbia accident.
A secondshuttle flight, STS-115 aboard the Atlantis orbiter, is scheduled to launchtoward the ISS no earlier than late August to deliver a new set of solar arraysand resume space station construction.
Returningthe ISS to a three-person crew and kick-starting its stalled construction plan isessential for the orbital laboratory, Vinogradov said.
"Prior tothe Columbia [accident], the delay in the station assembly sequence wasmeasured by months," the Expedition 13 commander has said. "Now it's measuredby years and growing with each expedition."
A nation'sfirst spaceflight
As theExpedition 13 crew prepares to take charge of the ISS, Pontes is shoulderingthe space exploration hopesof his entire nation.
"It's avery good feeling, I'm very happy about this, but it's a very bigresponsibility," Pontes said about his role as Brazil's first astronaut. "Iwill take it very seriously."
Pontesjoined NASA's international astronaut ranks in 1998 hoping for space shuttleflight. But the delays caused first by the Columbia accident, then by NASA's recovery and ongoing fueltank foam work prompted the Brazilian Space Agency to seeka seat aboard the Soyuz TMA-8 vehicle.
During hiseight days aboard the ISS, Pontes plans to conduct a series of nanotechnologyexperiments, as well as several for Brazilian students across schools in hisnative country. He will return to Earth with the Expedition 12 crew on April 8.
HisCentennial Mission also commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the firstheavier-than-air flight by Brazilian aviator Alberto Santo-Dumont in 1906.Riding into space with the Brazilian astronaut were his nation's flag, a jerseyof the country's national soccer team and other items.
"It's notonly because of governments or the science that we do this," Pontes said beforelaunch. "It's because we as human beings have always had that need to know what'sbeyond."
It willtake Pontes and the Expedition 13 crew about two days to reach the ISS after aseries of orbital maneuvers to place them in the proper rendezvous position.
The threeastronauts are expected to dock at the space station's Zarya control module Fridayat 11:19 p.m. EST (0419 April 1 GMT). NASA will provide live coverage ofExpedition 13's ISS docking on NASA TV beginning at 10:00 p.m. EST (0300 April1 GMT).
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