Russian capsule with three astronauts blasts off, heads to space station

By Peter Leonard
Associated Press / May 28, 2009
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BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - A Russian space capsule blasted off yesterday into the searing hot skies above Central Asia on a landmark mission to expand the permanent human presence in space.

The Soyuz craft - carrying Canadian Bob Thirsk, Russian Roman Romanenko, and Belgian Frank De Winne - began a two-day journey to the international space station, the largest manmade object in Earth's orbit.

Hundreds of journalists, relatives, and dignitaries, including Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium, thronged around two viewing stands. Liftoff was on schedule at 4:34 p.m. local time, despite fears that windy weather would delay the launch.

The three astronauts on the Soyuz will join three crew members already on the station.

Thirsk, 55, stands to become the first Canadian to spend six months in space, easily outstripping other Canadian astronauts and his own previous 17-day trip on the space shuttle Columbia in 1996.

De Winne, 48, will be the first European Space Agency astronaut to take command of the station when he takes over from Russian Gennady Padalka in October.

Romanenko, 37, is the second Russian to follow his father into space. Yuri Romanenko, who flew as a space commander in the 1970s and 1980s, attended the launch.

"The Russians do a magnificent record of taking people to space and back," Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said. "They don't have a launch window; they don't have launch date. They have a launch second."

The Soyuz capsule will be hooked to the space station until it is used in the future by astronauts returning to Earth.

The newest crew members will further consolidate the international credentials of the space station, currently occupied by Padalka, US astronaut Michael Barratt, and Japan's Koichi Wakata.

Experts also say the enlarged crew will allow for greater advances in scientific research.