Soyuz carries new crew to space station

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Russian-American crew and Brazil’s first astronaut flew into orbit Thursday onboard a Russian rocket bringing them on a two-day trip to the international space station.

The mission’s start was dogged by early data transmission problems, but officials said they were fixed quickly and did not jeopardize the crew.

The Soyuz-FG rocket with a Soyuz TMA-8 spacecraft attached to it lifted off just after dawn from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, taking Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeffrey Williams to the station for their six month-stay.

Also on board was Brazil’s first man in space, Marcos C. Pontes, who will stay at the station for nine days before returning to Earth on April 9 with the station’s current crew of Russian Valery Tokarev and American Bill McArthur.

Observers at Russian Mission Control outside Moscow burst into applause after the spacecraft reached near-Earth orbit, about 10 minutes after its launch from the Baikonur.

Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov said communication troubles dogged the early moments of the Expedition 13, hampering the transmission of telemetry data.

“We lost several information transfer channels, which made our work harder,” Solovyov told reporters at the mission control.

He said that the Mission Control retained communications with the crew and the telemetry transfer glitch was quickly fixed and did not threaten the crew’s safety. “Communications with the crew was never interrupted,” Solovyov said.

A video camera aboard the Russian spaceship showed Pontes grinning broadly, giving a thumbs-up and pointing to his country’s flag on the left arm of his spacesuit. Back at Baikonur, his wife and daughter were surrounded by about 150 other observers, who craned their necks as the rocket climbed.

“I was crying during the launch because his dream came true,” said Pontes’ 15-year-old daughter, Ana.

Pontes beamed as he told reporters Wednesday of his hope that everyone in Brazil would share his pride in having a chance to take part — and would watch as the national flag soared into space.

The Soyuz TMA-8 is due to dock at the station early Saturday. Vinogradov, who is the commander of the crew, said they would carry out more than 65 scientific experiments during the mission, including some to test human reaction to prolonged space travel.

Vinogradov and Williams were to be joined later by European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter of Germany, when the space shuttle Discovery visits the space station in July. Once Reiter arrives, the station’s long-duration crew will be three in number for the first time since May 2003, following the Columbia disaster that February.

“It’s a new beginning for the space station,” NASA official Kirk Shireman said after watching the launch.

The American space program has depended on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery to the space station since the Columbia explosion. The shuttle Discovery visited the station in July but had problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank.

Williams praised the cooperation between the Russians and the Americans, saying the two countries were united by the common vision of space exploration and by the goal of keeping a permanent presence in orbit following the Columbia accident.

“I think the partnership is stronger because of it,” he said.

Vinogradov said that, in space cooperation, the Russians and Americans “have learned to work together.”

Pontes trained in the United States and had been scheduled to fly to the space station aboard a U.S. space shuttle — plans that were scrapped after the Columbia disaster. Brazil and Russia then opened talks that eventually led to Pontes’ chance to be placed into orbit.

Besides the flag, Pontes said he also took other items important to his Latin American nation — including a Brazilian soccer jersey, hoping it would bring his national team victory in this summer’s World Cup in Germany.