As a Russian Soyuz spacecraft rose into the bright blue sky Tuesday, spectators held their breaths, South Koreans celebrated their first astronaut and the astronaut's mother fainted.
The flight itself — launched from the same pad that sent Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik into space — seemed flawless. The spacecraft lifted off within seconds of its scheduled departure and delivered its crew into orbit about 10 minutes later.
Russia's space scientists and engineers, who struggled for over a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, seem to have made the risky and dramatic business of sending people into orbit almost routine.
"Everything goes like Swiss watches" on Soyuz flights, said Christian Feichtinger, who has witnessed a number of launches at the Baikonur Cosmodrome as head of the European Space Agency's Moscow office.
A zipper broke Tuesday on the space suit of Sergei Volkov, 35, the commander of the Soyuz mission, but the suit passed a pressure test and he was cleared for flight.
The Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled to deliver Volkov, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, 43, and Yi So-yeon, a 29-year-old South Korean bioengineer, to the international space station Thursday.
Despite the seeming routine, the sight of the 164-feet-high rocket arcing through the cloudless sky still stirred deep emotions.
Relatives, friends and colleagues stood in silence watching the huge vehicle rise as though weightless from the launch pad. The ground shook and the roar of the engines made conversation impossible more than a mile away.
Moments later Yi's mother, Jung Kum-suk, screamed and collapsed as Russian medics in orange jumpsuits rushed to her aid. Officials said later that she had recovered.
At about the same time, her daughter became the first Korean ever to fly into space.
The launch triggered celebrations in South Korea, where thousands gathered near city hall in Seoul to watch on giant television screens. Live broadcasts showed Yi inside the capsule smiling and waving and giving the thumbs-up sign.
"The birth of the first South Korean astronaut is a joy to the people and will give a big hope to the growing generations," President Lee Myung-bak told the crowd.
South Korea paid Russia $20 million for the launch, and staged a competition that drew 36,000 applicants to become the country's first astronaut.
Ko San, a mathematician, was originally supposed to fly on the Soyuz on Tuesday. He was relegated to the backup crew in March after he was accused of removing technical materials from a cosmonaut training center library without authorization.
The drama of Yi's rise and Ko's fall inspired headlines in South Korea and Russia. Ko apologized and shrugged off his disappointment. His employer, the state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute, has rebuked him.
Ko watched the launch at Baikonur — located in Kazakhstan but controlled by Russia — and called Yi well prepared. He felt anxious, he said, as he watched the rocket accelerate into the sky.
"I have no religion, but I prayed for the success of the flight," said Ko. Earlier, he had circulated among the crowd at the launch, smiling, having his photo taken and handing out yellow wildflowers from the Kazakh steppes.
The Soyuz flight was the first space flight for both cosmonauts and marked a milestone for the mission commander. With Tuesday's flight, Volkov became the first second-generation astronaut or cosmonaut to reach space.
Volkov's father, Alexander Volkov, is a decorated cosmonaut from the Soviet era. On his last journey, he left Earth as a Soviet citizen and returned as a citizen of the new Russian Federation, following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The elder Volkov said he had mixed feelings as he said farewell to his son. "It's hard for me because I know what is ahead for them and I know how hard it is," he said, with his Hero of the Soviet Union medal pinned to his gray business suit.
The younger Volkov and his crew mates will spend the next two days crammed into formfitting seats in the small spacecraft. Then comes the delicate task of docking the Soyuz to the international space station.
Space-cooked Korean meal
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, 73, who became the first man to walk in space in 1965 and was at one time the chief of cosmonaut training, said Volkov would make his father proud.
"He is a very serious guy, a very good pilot," Leonov said, adding he had known the elder Volkov for 35 years and the young cosmonaut since he was a toddler.
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, was also at the launch: another reminder of how many firsts the Soviet space program has racked up.
During the days before the flight, Yi, Volkov and Kononenko observed many of the traditions that have evolved since Gagarin became the first man to travel to space in 1961.
Soviet and later Russian space travelers by tradition stay in the guarded Cosmonaut Hotel in the city of Baikonur. On Monday night, the crew — like the crews before them — were slated to watch "White Sun of the Desert," the classic Soviet film set in the early 1920s with no obvious connection to space travel.
On launch day, as custom demands, Yi, Volkov and Kononenko traveled to the launch site aboard a bus with a blue stripe, while the backup crew traveled in one with a yellow stripe.
Yi plans to conduct 18 scientific experiments during her nine days on the space station and has also pledged to cook a Korean meal there. On Saturday, she will sing to mark Cosmonauts' Day.
Volkov and Kononenko are scheduled to spend six months as part of the orbiting station's crew. They will join American astronaut Garrett Reisman, who arrived last month on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour.
Yi is to return to Earth on April 19 along with two of the station's other current occupants, American astronaut Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko.