Russia sends multinational crew to ISS
Russia on Wednesday sent a multinational crew of three astronauts to the International Space Station on a Soyuz rocket from its Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, US NASA astronaut Don Pettit and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers blasted off aboard a Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft at 1316 GMT in a spectacular night-time launch from the Kazakh steppe, an AFP correspondent reported.
The launch, which filled the otherwise pitch-black steppe with blazing light, appeared to go smoothly and mission control said that the Soyuz went into orbit as planned 10 minutes after lift-off.
Unusually, Kononenko did not bring any talisman to hang in the cockpit to indicate the arrival of weightlessness, telling reporters ahead of mission that there were other means of measuring gravity.
Their mission will bring the crew of the ISS back up to its full complement of six after the timetable for the launches was reshuffled following the loss of a Russian Progress supply ship bound for the station in August.
When they dock on Friday at 1520 GMT the trio will join Dan Burbank of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin -- who have been on the ISS since mid-November -- and prepare to spend Christmas together.
Following the retirement of the US shuttle in July, Russia is currently the only nation capable of transporting humans to the ISS.
But its image as a reliable partner was severely tarnished with the loss of the Progress supply ship, which crashed into Siberia shortly after launch and caused a complete rejig of the launch schedule.
This capped a disastrous year for the Russian space agency which also saw the loss of three navigation satellites, an advanced military satellite and a telecommunications satellite due to faulty launches.
Russia has also acknowledged the almost certain loss of its Phobos-Grunt probe for Mars' largest moon, which was launched on November 9 but has failed to head out of Earth's orbit on its course to the Red Planet.
The probe is expected to fall back to Earth in January but Russian space officials have emphasised it should not pose a threat to anyone on the ground.
© 2011 AFP