Video: US, Russian astronauts blast off

updated 4/4/2011 10:20:39 PM ET 2011-04-05T02:20:39

A U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off before dawn Tuesday, riding into orbit on a Soyuz craft emblazoned with the portrait of the first man in space in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight.

As the Soyuz TMA-21 launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome as scheduled at 4:18 a.m. local time, it turned the darkness into broad daylight for several moments and warmed the chilly steppe of Kazakhstan with a bright orange glow.

About nine minutes into the flight to the International Space Station, officials announced that the spacecraft had successfully reached orbit.

"They're feeling very good. They're very happy," said NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who watched the launch from the viewing platform. Stott has been on two spaceflights, including the final mission of the space shuttle Discovery, which landed March 9.

Live footage on NASA TV showed that a small stuffed dog hanging in front of the crew had begun to float, an indication of the weightlessness of space. The toy dog had been given to the Russian commander, Alexander Samokutyayev, by his daughter.

Mike Suffredini, head of NASA's International Space Station program, said the launch went off completely as planned.

"It was perfect, quite appropriate for the anniversary," he told The Associated Press at Baikonur.

The launch from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was the first for Samokutyayev and Andrei Borisenko. The NASA astronaut traveling with them, Ron Garan, had made one previous trip into space, on a U.S. space shuttle mission in 2008.

They are to travel for two days before joining three other astronauts already aboard the orbiting space laboratory: Russia's Dmitry Kondratyev, NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman and Italy's Paolo Nespoli, who have been there since December.

Two space anniversaries loom
Tuesday's launch was seven days shy of anniversaries of two space milestones: Gagarin's flight into orbit in 1961 from the same launch pad and the first flight of the U.S. space shuttle 20 years later.

Speaking to reporters the day before the launch, Garan noted how much spaceflight has changed since Gagarin was launched during the space race between the two Cold War superpowers.

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"Fifty years ago, one nation launched one man, basically as a competition," he said. "Today, the three of us represent the many nations of the international partnership that makes up the International Space Station."

In line with a now 50-year tradition, the crew earlier this week visited the cabin where Gagarin spent his last night before his flight. The American astronaut admitted getting "a little bit of chills" when he visited the cabin, where all the furniture and even Gagarin's personal belongings have been kept intact.

Russian spacecraft are normally austere in their design, carrying only an identifying number. The decision to name the current mission's spacecraft after Gagarin and decorate it with his portrait shows the reverence with which he is held in the Russian space industry. The Soyuz also was painted with Gagarin's now famous line as he headed for the launch pad: "Let's go!"

Tweets from an astronaut
In his final message on Twitter before setting out on the six-month mission, Garan said:

"Thanks to everyone for all the words of encouragement. They really mean a great deal to me. Final preps are in work. We're ready!"

Garan wrote earlier Tuesday on Twitter that he had picked U2's "One" and Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms" as music to listen to during the flight.

Garan's backup, Daniel Burbank, used Garan's Twitter account to post photos of the launch preparations.

One of them showed the American astronaut following a Baikonur tradition and leaving his name on the door of his hotel room.

Garan has promised to keep sending Twitter messages and blogging at Fragile Earth, a shared blog written by several astronauts.

NASA will end its 30-year-old space shuttle program after Endeavor's flight, now set for April 29, and the final trip of Atlantis this summer. After that, the Soyuz will provide the only means to carry astronauts into space — at least until a new generation of commercial U.S. spaceships are ready for flight.

Suffredini said he has "absolutely all the confidence in the world that Soyuz is doing the job" but would like the U.S. "at some point to evolve to have its own capability in human's lowest orbit."

A prospective successor to the space shuttle, the Ares 1 launch system, was canceled in October after President Barack Obama proposed eliminating public funds for the program and attracting corporate money to develop a replacement.

More about Yuri Gagarin and spaceflight:

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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