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Russians launch new space station crew

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft lit up the skies above Central Asia as it soared into space to ferry two Americans and one Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station.
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A Russian Soyuz spacecraft lit up the skies above Central Asia as it soared into space to ferry two Americans and one Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station.

The Soyuz TMA-19 vehicle blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:35 a.m. Wednesday local time, though it was still Tuesday afternoon in the United States, where NASA flight controllers watched from Mission Control in Houston.

NASA astronauts Douglas "Wheels" Wheelock and Shannon Walker launched into space alongside veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who is commanding the two-day Soyuz trip toward the space station. They are due to dock at the station at 6:25 p.m. ET Thursday.

The Soyuz blasted off from the same launch pad (and on the same day, local time) that was used 47 years ago to send the first woman into space — cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.

"It's an honor to launch on her date," Walker said before launch. More than 50 women, including Walker, have followed Tereshkova into orbit.

NASA officials said Yurchikhin chose the name "Olympus" as his call sign for the Soyuz flight, his third spaceflight. The name honors Olympus Mons on Mars, the tallest peak in the solar system.

The Soyuz TMA-19 spacefliers are beginning a six-month mission to the space station. They'll join three other astronauts already living aboard the outpost.

"We're very excited about it and we're ready to get started," Wheelock, a U.S. Army captain, said before launch. The flight marks his second trip to space.

Over the next six months, the astronauts and cosmonaut expect to perform several spacewalks to maintain and upgrade the $100 billion space station. They also expect to host NASA's two final space shuttle missions — currently scheduled for mid-September and late November — before the U.S. space agency retires the shuttles for good.

Walker is the only space rookie of the bunch. In a pre-launch video aired on NASA TV, she said she was very happy, but a little bit apprehensive about the flight.

Walker also has a fan club. She is, after all, the first hometown astronaut for Houston — the home of NASA's astronaut corps — in the more than 40 years that the Texas city has served as a hub for American human spaceflight.

"Go Shannon! Whooo!" Walker's supporters cheered in a scene from the video. "Go Wheels!"

Walker is married to NASA astronaut Andrew Thomas, a veteran of several spaceflights on U.S. shuttles and one months-long flight to Russia's Mir space station.

A NASA spokesperson said that Thomas was "excited, thrilled nervous and yes, just a tiny bit jealous" as he prepared to watch his wife rocket into space without him.

When Yurchikhin, Wheelock and Walker arrive at the space station Thursday, they will bring the orbiting lab's crew back up to six people — its full strength.

Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko, plus American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, have been living aboard the station since April and are in the middle of their own six-month stint to the outpost.

The new station crew members said they were eager to join their crewmates even as they traded jokes with children and space officials before liftoff.

Wheelock is also posting updates on his mission training and spaceflight on Twitter, where he writes under the name Astro_Wheels.

"Up, up the long delirious burning blue..." Wheelock wrote in his last Twitter post before launching into space. He was quoting the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot officer who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.