Two rookie cosmonauts and a NASA shuttle veteran rocketed into orbit aboard a Russian Soyuz ferry craft Tuesday for the International Space Station. Joining them were 32 medaka fish, bound for a zero-gravity research aquarium aboard the lab complex.
Under a clear afternoon sky, the workhorse Russian rocket roared to life at 6:51:11 a.m. EDT (4:51:11 p.m. local time) and smoothly climbed away from its launching pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
It was the first manned flight from the remote Site 31 pad since July 1984, a departure from the usual practice of launching station crews from the Site 1 complex used by Yuri Gagarin at the dawn of the space age.
Liftoff was timed for roughly the moment Earth's rotation carried the pad into the plane of the space station's orbit, and the climb to orbit appeared to go off without a hitch as the green-and-white rocket thundered away atop a torrent of fiery exhaust.
Live television from inside the Soyuz TMA-06M command module showed commander Oleg Novitskiy monitoring the automated ascent from the center seat, flanked on the left by light engineer Evgeny Tarelkin and on the right by NASA astronaut Kevin Ford.
Novitskiy and Tarelkin are making their first space flights, while Ford piloted a space shuttle during a 2009 flight to the space station.
All three appeared relaxed and in good spirits as the Soyuz booster accelerated toward orbit. One of the cosmonauts reported an alarm of some sort shortly after launch, but there were no indications of anything amiss, and flight controllers later said there were no obvious problems.
The liquid-fueled core stages and strap-on boosters fired and fell away as planned, and 8:45 after launch, the Soyuz spacecraft was released into its planned preliminary orbit. A few moments later, the ferry craft's two solar arrays and communications antennas unfolded as planned.
"We congratulate you," a Russian flight controller radioed.
"Thank you very much," Novitskiy replied. "All crew members feel good."
Over the next two days, the crew will carry out a series of rendezvous rocket firings to fine-tune their approach to the space station, setting up an automated docking at the Zvezda command module's upper Poisk compartment around 8:35 a.m. Thursday.
Standing by to welcome them on board will be Expedition 33 commander Sunita Williams, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who were launched to the lab complex July 15. They've had the station to themselves since Sept. 16 when the Soyuz TMA-04M spacecraft brought outgoing station commander Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin and Joseph Acaba back to Earth.
The newcomers will face a busy first week in space with the departure of a U.S. cargo craft, the arrival of a Russian supply ship and a NASA spacewalk to fix a coolant system leak.