A Russian Soyuz rocket carrying two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut blasted off from Kazakhstan Wednesday and raced into orbit for an abbreviated six-hour flight to the International Space Station.
Soyuz TMA-10M commander Oleg Kotov, a space station veteran, rookie flight engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy and first-time NASA flier Michael Hopkins lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:58:50 p.m. EDT Wednesday (GMT-4; 2:58 a.m. Thursday local time).
Trailing a brilliant plume of flame from its liquid-fueled engines, the Soyuz booster climbed away to the northeast, launching almost directly into the plane of the space station's orbit.
Hopkins is the first of his 14-member 2009 astronaut class to win a flight assignment. Raised on a farm in Missouri, captain of his University of Illinois football team and an Air Force flight test engineer, Hopkins made the climb to space strapped into the right seat of the cramped Soyuz command module.
Kotov, the veteran commander, monitored cockpit displays from the center seat with Ryazanskiy strapped in to his left.
The ascent appeared to go smoothly and live television from inside the cramped Soyuz command module showed all three crew members calmly monitoring their instruments amid routine calls to and from mission control near Moscow.
"Vibration, oscillations, within norms," Kotov reported at one point. "Nominal operation of the systems."
Eight minutes and 45 seconds after launch, the rocket's third-stage engine shut down and the Soyuz spacecraft was released into its planned preliminary orbit with a high point, or apogee, of 143 miles and a low point, or perigee, of 118 miles. The vehicle's solar arrays and navigation antennas deployed normally a few moments later.
"Congratulations," a mission control member radioed from the ground.
In keeping with recent practice, Kotov planned to oversee a four-orbit, six-hour rendezvous with the station, monitoring an automated approach and docking at the upper Poisk module around 10:48 p.m.
"Fyodor, launch and ascent have been successful, all elements have been deployed and everything is going nominally at the moment," a Russian flight controller radioed the station shortly after the Soyuz reached orbit.
"Great, Nikolai, great," Fyodor Yurchikhin replied from the ISS. "We just can't wait."
Assuming no problems with the rendezvous and docking, hatches between the station and the Soyuz TMA-10M spacecraft will be opened and the two crews will assemble in the Zvezda command module for a traditional post-docking chat with family members and mission managers in Moscow.
After bringing the new crew members up to speed on station safety procedures, Yurchikhin and the expanded Expedition 37 crew will settle in for a busy month of science operations and work to unload one cargo ship and re-load another with trash and no-longer-needed gear.
Along with his science and maintenance chores, Hopkins, a devoted weight lifter and physical fitness buff, will participate in NASA's "Train Like an Astronaut" program, posting regular updates and videos of his exercise aboard the station, along with tips from astronaut trainers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"I'm hoping to reach anybody and everybody I can with the physical fitness piece of it," he said. "For me, for my family, fitness, exercise, sports, it all plays a huge role. It's all about balance, too. So the work aspect, the family aspect, the rest, the exercise, it all needs to balance out.
"I'd love to reach kids, because kids that start out with a healthy lifestyle, with exercise, with sports, are going to turn into adults that do the same thing. If I can reach adults and get them excited about exercising again ,or get them beyond that second week New Year's resolution to continue, I would love to do that."
At the same time, he said, "I'm hoping to get people excited about space and what we're doing up there."