A Russian rocket blasted off from the Central Asian steppes and soared into space at dawn Friday, catapulting three astronauts in a crowded capsule on a two-day journey to the International Space Station.
Rays of light from the rising sun turned the smoky trail shades of pink, purple and orange as the Soyuz-FG rocket soared away from Russia's base at the Baikonur Cosmodrome with a Russian-U.S. crew and an Italian astronaut.
Russia's space program has been the station's lifeline for two years, delivering fresh scientists and supplies to the orbiting laboratory. Next month, however, the new crew will welcome a U.S. space shuttle to the station when NASA revives a shuttle program grounded after the Columbia disaster.
Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips are heading for a six-month stay on the station. Italian Roberto Vittori from the European Space Agency, was set to return to Earth in 10 days with Russian Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao, who have been on the orbiting lab since October.
The 46-year-old Krikalev has logged 624 days in space on missions both to the ISS and the Russian space station Mir. At the end of the current mission, his sixth, Krikalev will have spent 800 days in space - more than any other astronaut.
Phillips's wife Laura and daughter Allie watched as he celebrated his 54th birthday with the liftoff from the remote, wind-swept Baikonur base on the Kazakh steppes.
"I didn't know what to expect, but the sunrise with the beautiful rocket launch, it was just outstanding," said Laura Phillips as she huddled with a crowd of officials bundled up against the cold, with temperatures just above freezing.
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.
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 4,000-5,000 rubles (US$144-179) a month.
The Soyuz carried 309 tons (304 US tons) of supplies at liftoff - even though the capsule itself weighs only 6.5 tons (7 US tons). It has been the only way of getting astronauts to the ISS since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, sparking a suspension of shuttle flights.
The new crew's major task will be welcoming the U.S. space shuttle Discovery to the station, with NASA aiming to revive flights as early as May 15.
In Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA on Thursday successfully tested a redesigned external fuel tank. It underwent major modifications after the Columbia disaster, which was caused by a chunk of insulating foam that fell off the tank during liftoff and gashed the shuttle's wing.
NASA removed foam from some places on the tank and applied the insulation differently, to prevent big chunks from breaking off. Heaters were also installed to prevent the formation of ice at spots that no longer have insulation.
A key task for Krikalev and Phillips will be to observe the condition of the insulating tiles as the Discovery approaches the ISS, conducting a photo survey of the exterior of the shuttle while it is maneuvering prior to docking.
"I think the eyes of the world are going to be upon the shuttle crew at that moment, and will be a little on us too, and I'm really proud to be a part in that," Phillips said Thursday.
Krikalev said he expected to be moved by the shuttle arrival.
"When the shuttle comes it will be a big celebration. They're not only bringing material for experiments, material for the station, food, water, gas, but they're bringing emotions," he said.
Vittori's brief mission will mean he'll miss the shuttle's arrival, but he plans to contribute by spicing 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."
JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Writer
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow.
Su-35 and Su-30 fighters were carrying out a scheduled training flight, when the incident occurred