The next crew of the international space station rocketed into orbit after a picture-perfect dawn liftoff from Kazakhstan, kicking off a two-day orbital chase that should culminate late Saturday, U.S. time, with a docking at the orbital outpost.
A reliable Soyuz rocket, carrying Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev, NASA astronaut and science officer John Phillips and European Space Agency flier Roberto Vittori, roared to life on time at 6:46 a.m. local time (8:46 p.m. EDT Friday) and climbed smoothly away from its launch stand — the same pad used by Yuri Gagarin — at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood.
About nine minutes later, the Soyuz spacecraft separated from its spent upper stage. A few moments after that, the capsule's solar panels and antennas deployed to complete the initial launch phase of the mission.
Space engineers, who watched the launch on a large screen at Russian Mission Control outside Moscow, broke into applause as an announcer confirmed that the space ship had entered orbit and that all systems were working fine.
"You guys are true professionals," ground control radioed the crew. "Congratulations on a successful launch."
Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov paid tribute after the launch to his nation's hardworking, poorly compensated spacemen.
"The people who are doing the job are real romantics who are involved in fascinating work for a miserable salary," he told reporters after the launch, which he called a "remarkable event." Cosmonauts typically earn $144 to $179 a month.
Phillips's wife Laura and daughter Allie watched as he celebrated his 54th birthday with the lift-off from the remote, wind-swept Baikonur base on the Kazakh steppes.
"The sunrise with the beautiful rocket launch, it was just outstanding," Laura Phillips said as she huddled with a crowd of officials bundled against the cold, with temperatures just above freezing.
Docking at the Pirs module of the international space station is expected around 10:19 p.m. EDT Saturday.
Krikalev and Phillips, both veterans of earlier flights to the space station, will welcome the shuttle Discovery's crew next month during the first post-Columbia shuttle mission.
"It's going to be really exciting," Phillips said in a NASA interview. "It's going to be really busy and a challenge but I'm glad we're going to get a couple of visiting vehicles there. The whole hunker-down-for-six-months thing is probably not quite as rewarding as hosting these visitors and working with them on a lot of complex operations."
The station crew will even play a role in NASA's post-Columbia safety plan, photographing the belly of the orbiter during its final approach to help engineers verify the health of its heat-shield tile system.
"Sergei and I will have electronic still cameras and we will do a detailed photo survey of the outside of the shuttle and then we'll quickly downlink the photos back to the ground."
Krikalev and Phillips also will assist Discovery's crew during three planned spacewalks and help move cargo back and forth between the station and a logistics module carried aloft aboard the shuttle.
"Since the Columbia accident, the Russian space agency, or the Russian space program, has been literally carrying the load and bringing us all the supplies we need, mostly on the Progress vehicle, smaller amounts on the Soyuz vehicles," Phillips said. "One impact of that is that we've only had a crew of two instead of a crew of three, which, of course, reduces the amount of science we can do.
"Another impact is that we've frankly been operating on pretty thin margins of certain consumables — food, water and oxygen. Once the space shuttles start flying, they carry a huge amount of mass to orbit, so they can bring our reserves of food, oxygen and water back up to where they should be."
Vittori plans to spice up the space station's cuisine.
"One of the particularities of this mission is that we also have some food coming from Italy," he said. "The idea is to bring a little flavor of Italy to the International Space Station."
"This is going to be an exciting year, really a pivotal time in the nation's space program," Michael Kostelnik, NASA's chief of shuttle-station operations, said from Baikonur.
Phillips, who turned 54 on Friday, flew to the station during a space shuttle mission in 2001, logging 12 days in space. Krikalev, 46, is one of the most experienced space fliers in the world, a veteran of five earlier missions including two long-duration stays aboard the Russian Mir station — one of them stretching more than 10 months — and the first long-duration stay aboard the international space station.
A former champion aerobatic pilot and veteran of seven spacewalks, Krikalev has spent one year, five months and 10 days in orbit. On the 124th day of the current mission, his cumulative time in space will exceed 747 days, giving him a new world record. By the time he returns to Earth this fall, he will have logged a cumulative 800 days in orbit.
"I never paid enough attention to this record-setting subject because the job itself is very interesting for me," he said in a NASA interview. "Being there and being able to look back to Earth, to do something challenging, that was really important. How many days was not as important."
CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.