Three astronauts from Japan, Russia and the United States blasted off early Monday morning amid harsh weather conditions for a Christmas voyage to the International Space Station.
The Soyuz rocket blasted off on schedule from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in the barren Kazakh steppe at 3:52 am local time carrying Soichi Noguchi of Japan, US astronaut Timothy Creamer and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov.
Rain and then sleet poured down onto the sparse Central Asian landscape, quickly blanketing the site in a thick layer of ice, weather conditions which nonetheless helped create a breathtaking backdrop for the launch.
As the rocket surged skywards from the launch pad, the fire from the boosters turned the inky night sky a searing white, bathing the area around the launch site in an almost supernatural glow for more than a minute.
The launch was the first manned nighttime mission undertaken during the long and frigid winter months here at the historic cosmodrome that helped launch the space race when it propelled Yuri Gagarin into orbit almost half a century ago.
The Soyuz successfully reached its designated orbit to applause and cheers from the assembled crowd of observers and family members, and is due to dock with the ISS on Wednesday at 2254 GMT, just two days before Christmas.
“A spectacular launch. Great Christmas present. A crew that is facing a very challenging expedition once it arrives on the station a couple of days from now. A great way to finish the year,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias told AFP.
The crew will now spend six months in orbit, during which time they will celebrate Christmas and ring in the new year, and they have promised to hold holiday festivities onboard the station, handing out gifts to one another.
Several onlookers even remarked that the rocket, draped in lights prior to liftoff, resembled a Christmas tree, adding to the already festive mood surrounding the expedition.
Indeed, much of the attention leading up to the launch has been focused on the lighter side of the voyage — Noguchi’s promises to prepare ‘space sushi’ for the crew and Creamer’s plans to update his Twitter page from the ISS.
Creamer, who holds a masters degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a self-described “tech guy”, took the time to ‘tweet’ one last message before the launch.
“Just to share: now on the van 2 suit up. Thk u all 4 your well-wishes. Will tweet soonest. Happy & Safe holidays to all!” he posted as his final message before lift off.
But putting aside talk of high cuisine in high orbit and passing Santa Claus’ sleigh on their way to the station, the expedition has several serious technical goals.
Their biggest Christmas present to the ISS will be the delivery of a new viewing platform for the station, which will provide a 360 degree view of the heavens and bring the station another step closer to completion.
“The main aim of the expedition is to first of all deliver the final US connecting element, ‘Tranquility Node Three’ and a multi-windowed viewport called the ‘Cupola’ to the station,” Navias explained.
“That will set the stage for the completion of assembly and the beginning of the utilization of the station for science capability.”
The ISS, which orbits 350 kilometres above Earth, is a sophisticated platform for scientific experiments, helping test the effects of long-term space travel on humans, a must for any trip to distant Mars.
A huge new solar array was installed earlier this year to provide more power which, together with a newly installed European laboratory and a hi-tech Japanese lab, Kibo, has significantly boosted the station’s capabilities.
The Soyuz is set to become the sole means of reaching the ISS for a few years as the United States is due to take its ageing shuttles out of commission in 2010.
The team was to replace Frank De Winne of Belgium, Robert Thirsk of Canada and Roman Romanenko of Russia, who returned to Earth on December 1 after spending six months on board the ISS whose capacity was doubled in May from three to six astronauts.