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Russians launch international trio to the space station

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Russian spacecraft blasted off from southern Kazakhstan in the early darkness of Wednesday morning to take a three-man crew to the International Space Station.

Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, NASA's Michael Fossum, and Satoshi Furukawa of Japan roared into the night sky from the desolate but balmy Kazakh Steppe early Wednesday.

Furukawa held a thumbs-up as the rocket charged into low orbit at speeds approaching 14,000 miles per hour (23,000 kilometers per hour), and a soft toy began to float, indicating zero gravity.

"We feel just great," Volkov said in answer to a question from Mission Control outside Moscow.

The trio will spend almost two days in the cramped Soyuz capsule before docking with the space station, where they will remain until mid-November.

Family, friends and colleagues of the astronauts watched the powerful rocket cast a phosphorous glow over the Russian-leased Baikonur space launch site, deep inside the territory of the former Soviet nation, at 2:15 a.m. local time (1:15 p.m. ET Tuesday).

This is the second run for the revamped version of the Soyuz, which has served as the workhorse of the Russian space program for decades.

Volkov, Fossum and Furukawa will join three other spacefliers already aboard the space station: NASA astronaut Ron Garan and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Andrey Borisenko. Those three are due to return to Earth in September.

The team will witness the final mission of the U.S. shuttle, with NASA retiring the 30-year program after Atlantis flies on July 8.

South Dakota native Fossum, 53, is the oldest member of the outbound crew and has been closely involved with the design and assembly of the International Space Station.

"(I) helped design the space station, I helped build it on two assembly flights, and now to have the opportunity to live there is just amazing," he said before liftoff.

Astronaut farmers
Furukawa told reporters that he would be growing cucumbers as part of a continuing study investigating how future space explorers might produce their own food. "We wish we were able to eat the cucumbers, but we have not been allowed," Furukawa, a doctor, said at a prelaunch news conference.

Japan has led the way in trying to raise culinary standards in space. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who is in Baikonur escorting Furukawa's family, even made his own sushi while on the space station last year.

Volkov said that tomatoes will be planted in the station's Russian segment, and he joked that he hoped astronauts might be granted permission to prepare a salad. "To be honest, what I would really like is fried potatoes," he added.

After the shuttles
Wednesday's launch came just a week after the shuttle Endeavour touched down at the end of its last mission. After Atlantis' flight, the Russian Soyuz craft will provide the only means to transport humans to and from the space station — at least until U.S. commercial spacecraft are available for NASA's use around the middle of the decade.

Patrick Buzzard, NASA's representative to Russia, said the two countries have relied and one another over the recent history of space exploration and that nothing was set to change.

"It is such a strong partnership and we have these capabilities that everyone brings to the table. That makes it a more robust program," Buzzard told The Associated Press at the Baikonur launch pad viewing platform.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.