BAIKONUR COSMODROME, KAZAKHSTAN - The three newest crew members to take up residence at the International Space Station blasted off into orbit today on board a Russian Soyuz launch vehicle from the spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The three space travelers will join another three astronauts already on the space station to form the Expedition 23 long-duration crew on the orbital complex.
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HI-DEFINITION VIDEO OF THE LAUNCH OF SOYUZ TMA-18
The Soyuz rocket, topped by the Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft, lifted off on time at 12:04 a.m. EDT Friday morning. Riding a brilliant tongue of flame from its multi-thrust chambered first stage, Soyuz quickly raced skyward into crystal clear skies over the desert launch complex.
Visibility was good enough that cameras on the ground were able to capture the jettison of the four strap-on liquid-fueled boosters as they fel away in a formation known as the "Cross of Korolev" - named in honor of Sergei Korolev, the first Soviet Chief Designer and the brain behind development of the R-7 ICBM which evolved into the Soyuz rocket.
Strapped into the center seat of Soyuz TMA-18 was spacecraft commander Alexander Skvortsov, with flight engineer Mikhail Kornienko on his left and American astronaut and Expedition 23 flight engineer Tracy Caldwell Dyson on the right.
In an emotional and entertaining break in the preflight preparations, Caldwell, in her flight suit, took a couple minutes to sing the Garth Brooks song "The River" for guests, officials and dignitaries as the traditional meeting of the State Commission to give final clearance for the mission.
The launch was flawless, as is typical for the reliable Soyuz booster. The 9 minute ride to orbit was marred only by communications difficulties shortly after launch that made it impossible for Russian mission control to communicate with the crew until after the spcaecraft reached orbit.
However, a live on-board television camera clearly showed the crew was safe and, by all appearances, enjoying the climb to space.
Soyuz reached orbit nine minutes after launch and settled into an initial orbit 143 miles by 118 miles above the Earth. During the next two days, the spacecraft will execute a series of rendezvous burns to fine-tune its course and catch up with ISS.
Docking is currently scheduled for 1:26 a.m. EDT Sunday morning.
Tracy Caldwell Dyson is the only veteran space traveler on the Soyuz, having previously flown on board the shuttle. Prior to launch, she compared the two spacecraft with equal praise for each.
"The shuttle is incredibly complex and it mesmerizes me still... just how all those systems work together at the appropriate time to get us through a mission.," she said. "The Soyuz is just incredibly robust. It's simple and where we're redundant, it's robust... So I have a deep respect for both vehicles."
With Soyuz TMA-18 safely in orbit, the crew onboard ISS can look forward to reurning to six-person operations in a couple days. Already on the space station are the three Expedition 22/23 crewmembers, led by ISS commander Oleg Kotov, U.S. astronaut Timothy Creamer and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
(The Spacearium / SpaceflightNews.net)
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