The British astronaut Michael Foale blasted off in a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan yesterday on a six-month mission to the International Space Station.
One of the world's most experienced astronauts, Mr Foale, 46, from Cambridge, will carry out maintenance and scientific studies. He is a veteran of five flights and last ventured into space in December 1999 when he helped repair and upgrade the Hubble telescope.
Also on board the Russian spacecraft will be the first Spaniard to visit the International Space Station, Pedro Duque, who will act as flight engineer during the trip, taking an active role in piloting the rocket. The mission will be commanded by the Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri.
Mr Duque will return to Earth on 28 October with the previous space station crew, Yuri Malenchenko and Edward Lu. Mr Kaleri and Mr Foale will remain on board for six months. As well as maintaining the space station, Mir, they will carry out a series of experiments in the fields of life and physical sciences.
Mr Foale said: "I am an addict for space flight. I have seen so many things, and I want to somehow touch them again." During his last journey, he undertook a space walk of more than eight hours. In 1997, he spent four-and-a-half months aboard the space station, carrying out hazardous repairs after it was damaged by a supply craft.
Cash-strapped Russia has borne the brunt of delivering crews and cargo to Mir since the US space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in February, killing its seven crew. The three remaining US shuttles are unlikely to resume flights before September next year.