March 30, 2006

Brazilian and Russia-U.S. Crew Blast Off to Space

By Michael Steen

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- Brazil's first astronaut blasted off from earth into a clear blue sky on Thursday with a Russian-U.S. crew bound for the orbiting International Space Station.

Marcos Pontes, a 43-year-old Brazilian Air Force pilot, was hunched inside the spacecraft with Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams, both of whom were starting a six-month rotation in space.

"Everything is good. Marcos is in space," a Russian official told the Brazilian's wife, Fatima, who was watching the dawn launch from a viewing platform at the Baikonur cosmodrome on the windswept Kazakh steppe.

Onboard cameras showed Pontes, who had a window seat, giving a thumbs-up. "I am very emotional. I cannot even explain how I feel right now. I am very, very happy," his wife said, with tears in her eyes.

Pontes, who packed a Brazilian soccer team shirt, returns to earth in 10 days with the outgoing crew, American Bill McArthur and Russian Valery Tokarev.


The Russian Soyuz TMA rocket took off at 9:30 p.m. EST with a roar powerful enough to be felt a kilometer from the cosmodrome, which is rented by Russia from its ex-Soviet Central Asian neighbor.

Its destination, the space station, was flying over the Western Pacific Ocean at the time of the launch, a NASA official said. The Soyuz is scheduled to dock in two days' time.

Russian space officials said the launch went smoothly although there had been a slight hitch with the telemetry -- the data feed from the spacecraft to mission control.

Soon after launch the first stage of the rocket fell away, leaving a puff of white condensation, and tumbled back to earth, still glowing orange, while the Soyuz sped higher and higher into space.

"It's beautiful, absolutely beautiful," said Michael Baker, a NASA international space station program manager.

Brazilian guests at the Russian military viewing platform laughed, clapped and cheered after Soyuz flight TMA-8 safely left the atmosphere. Some waved Brazil's green and yellow flag.

"We are very glad to see the first Brazilian cosmonaut in space," said Sergio Gaudenzi, president of the Brazilian Space Agency, speaking through a Russian interpreter. "It's a very happy day for us and for everyone in Brazil."

He said Pontes had taken several experiments with him, including one designed by 12 and 13-year-old Brazilian schoolchildren to study the effects of weightlessness on plant germination.

"These girls and boys are the future scientists of Brazil," he said.

Gaudenzi also revealed the identity of the national soccer player whose shirt is orbiting the planet. "I think it was probably Ronaldinho's shirt," he said.