New Station Crew, Korean Astronaut Rocket Into Space
South Korea's first astronaut and the Expedition 17 crew launches aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 8, 2008 on a mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 7:45 a.m. EDT.

Two Russian cosmonauts and South Korea's first astronaut soared into space aboard a Russian rocket Tuesday morning to begin a two-day trek toward the International Space Station (ISS).

Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko, along with South Korea's So-yeon Yi, lifted off aboard their Soyuz TMA-12 spacecraft at about 7:16 a.m. EDT (1116 GMT) from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it was late afternoon. The spaceflyers are set to dock at the station on Thursday at 9:00 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT).

"We're feeling fine, everything is nominal," Volkov said as they launched into space.

Russian Mission Control congratulated the astronauts after they reached orbit, with a special nod to Yi as her country's first spaceflyer.

"Thank you!" she replied in Russian. An excited Yi waved to the onboard camera with a big smile on her face during the launch, which was broadcast on Russian and NASA television. Yi's family members were seen cheering her on as they watched the launch from the ground.

The current space station crew watched the launch on video from space, where their orbital lab was over the Pacific Ocean, just west of Pitcairn Island.

Volkov, son of famed Russian cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, became the first second-generation spaceflyer to reach space with the successful launch. He will serve as commander for the six-month Expedition 17 space station mission, with Kononenko as his flight engineer.

"I never thought about it, really, that I am going to be the second generation of the space cosmonauts," Volkov said in a pre-flight NASA interview. "I just want to do my job as best as is possible and that?s it, honestly."

Yi, 29, is the second Asian woman to fly in space and is due to visit the orbital lab for a 10-day mission under a $25 million commercial arrangement between Russia and South Korea. She plans to perform science experiments and educational events during her orbital stay before returning aboard a Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft with ISS Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko on April 19.

"I am hoping the people of North Korea are happy about my flight as well," Yi, a mechanical engineer, told reporters in Russia?s cosmonaut training center in Star City before flight, the country?s Interfax News Agency reported.

Selected from a field of 36,000 applicants, Yi was originally chosen as South Korea?s backup astronaut behind artificial intelligence expert San Ko. She moved to the prime crew last month after Russian spaceflight officials pulled Ko from the flight due to reading rule violations.

Volkov and Kononenko will join their third Expedition 17 crewmate, U.S. astronaut Garrett Reisman, already aboard the station when they dock Thursday. During their tenure, the three first-time spaceflyers will help install the new massive Japanese Kibo laboratory on the station during NASA?s STS-124 shuttle mission, oversee the departure of Europe's cargo ship Jules Verne and perform at least one spacewalk.

"The main goal of Expedition 17 of course is to continue station exploitation," Volkov said. "We expect that STS-124 will bring probably the biggest module on the station, the Japanese pressurized module, and we will take part as a team to install and work with [the] module."

The new crew will arrive at a roughly 70-percent complete space station, and help make it even bigger when they add its largest room, Kibo.

"It will be quite an interesting expedition," Kononenko said in a pre-flight NASA interview. "The reason for that is that the station is almost fully assembled, I mean, the pressurized modules. In addition, the station will already have the Japanese module docked to it and the European module, so it will be quite an interesting construction there in space."

The current station crew has spent their last days aboard the ISS preparing for their relief crew's arrival.

During the busy, six-month Expedition 16 mission, Whitson, Malenchenko and their fellow crewmembers completed five spacewalks, hosted three visiting shuttle missions, and performed a slew of scientific experiments. The crewmembers helped install the hub-like Harmony connecting node, the European Columbus laboratory, a small Japanese storage module, and a giant Canadian robot on the space station.

While the two crews overlap this week, the spaceflyers will share more than mission tips and scientific expertise. Yi is planning to prepare Korean food for her U.S. and Russian crewmates and may even sing for them on April 12, Cosmonautics Day in Russia, to celebrate the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin?s historic 1961 launch that began human spaceflight, Interfax and the Associated Press reported.

"I hope they will like it," she said.

NASA will broadcast the docking of Expedition 17 with the ISS live on NASA TV Thursday, April 10 beginning at 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT). Click here for SPACE.com's NASA TV feed and live ISS mission updates.