A trio of spaceflyers, including one American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts, blasted off for the International Space Station tonight (Oct. 7) onboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
The crew launched at 7:10 p.m. EDT (2310 GMT) from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, soaring spaceward from the same historic launch pad where the first artificial satellite Sputnik lifted off 53 years ago this week.
Riding atop the Soyuz rocket were NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonauts Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka. They are flying aboard a new TMA-01M model of the Soyuz spacecraft, which features improved guidance, navigation, control, and data processing systems, in addition to an improved cooling device for the electronics.
The men are beginning a months-long mission on the International Space Station, and will make up half of the station's six-person crew.
Kelly, Kaleri and Skripochka are expected to dock at the station's rooftop Poisk module on Saturday at 8:02 p.m. EDT (0002 GMT Sunday), where they will join the orbiting outpost's Expedition 25 crew station commander Doug Wheelock and flight engineer Shannon Walker, both of NASA, and Russian flight engineer Fyodor Yurchikhin.
Astronaut twin blasts off
Kelly whose twin brother Mark is also an astronaut will assume command of the space station in November, when half of the ISS crew will journey back to Earth. This change will also mark the beginning of Expedition 26.
In a unique family affair, Kelly's brother, Mark, is due to fly aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on the STS-134 mission in February. [ Video: NASA's Identical Twin Astronauts ]
"It's actually the first time that two blood relatives have ever been in space together," Scott Kelly said in a NASA preflight interview. "It's exciting. I've obviously known my brother a really long time, and we're great friends and it's a real privilege to share the experience with someone you're so close to, the experience of being an astronaut, being able to talk about things that we experience and have a common framework to discuss it."
As part of their mission, Kelly, Kaleri and Skripochka will participate in scientific experiments and research in a range of fields, including physics, biology, medicine and geophysics. They will also be involved in some educational outreach.
Skripochka is making his first spaceflight , but Kelly and Kaleri are both veteran spaceflyers Kelly flew on two space shuttle missions and Kaleri has traveled into space four times before.
During their stay aboard the station, the crew is scheduled to oversee visits from two shuttles and two unmanned cargo ships one from Europe and one from Japan. In November, the space shuttle Discovery will fly to the station, followed by the February 2011 flight of Endeavour.
The overlap of Endeavour's flight and the Expedition 26 mission means that the Kelly astronaut twins will likely rendezvous in space.
Mark Kelly's shuttle flight is currently the last scheduled shuttle mission, though Congress recently passed a bill to approve one more flight before the fleet is retired.
"The space shuttle program no doubt has been very important in building the [International Space Station]," Skripochka said in a preflight interview. "It's a very interesting program that demonstrated the capabilities, possibly both advantage and disadvantages of a multi-use transportation system. This program has existed for almost 30 years and it has contributed greatly to the development of the space research."