Rocket blasts off with space station's first residents

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A Russian rocket carrying the first residents of the international space station have blasted off on a mission that NASA hopes will lead to the permanent occupancy of space.

A Russian rocket carrying the first residents of the international space station have blasted off on a mission that NASA hopes will lead to the permanent occupancy of space.

NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd, the space station's first commander, became only the second American to be launched aboard a Russian rocket. He was strapped into the Soyuz capsule along with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev.

"Lets go do it!" Shepherd shouted before boarding the rocket.

The 17-story Soyuz rocket soared into a desert fog from the same launch pad where the Space Age began 43 years ago this month. The significance was not lost on the crowd gathered at the Baikonur Cosmodrome for Tuesday's launch, or on the three men riding the rocket.

"It's history repeating itself - in a different way," said Joe Rochenberg, head of NASA's human space flight program.

The space station was zooming over the Sahara when Shepherd and his crew took off on their extremely belated journey. They will reach their new home on Thursday and settle in for a four-month stay.

The rocket was visible for only three seconds because of the thick fog. Its brightly burning engines could be seen several seconds later as the rocket gained speed and altitude.

Nine minutes later, Shepherd and his crew were safely in orbit, prompting tears and applause from the crowd of more than 500.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin and top Russian space officials celebrated with Scotch whiskey.

"It's a wonderful day, not for America, not for Russia, but for the people who live on this planet," Goldin said.

"There are so many people who felt maybe we couldn't do it. But it's happening, period. It's here. We're going to be in space forever with people who are circling this globe and then we're going on to Mars, back to the moon, and with bases on asteroids."

Shepherd's wife Beth Stringham-Shepherd brought along cigars that she passed out after her husband reached orbit safely.

"I'm very excited. I'm very happy," she said, puffing on her cigar.

Earlier Tuesday morning, she had stood outside the bus carrying the men to the Soyuz rocket.

Shepherd blew kisses to his wife and gave a thumbs-up to his colleagues before heading to the launch pad. "Take care and have fun," Stringham-Shepherd told her husband, emotionally sending him off for four months in orbit.

On Monday, barricaded behind glass to avoid germs, Shepherd made a pitch for a name for the international space station.

"For thousands of years, humans have been going to sea on ships," the 51-year-old Navy captain and former SEAL told reporters.

"People have designed and built these vessels, launched them with a good feeling that a name will bring good fortune to the crew and success to their voyage. We're waiting for some decision from our managers as to whether we will follow this tradition or not."

Gidzenko and Krikalev sat next to their space station skipper on Monday as the Russian space program's top commission formally approved their launch on a mission that NASA considers every bit as important as the Apollo moon landings.

"It's definitely the beginning of a new era in human space flight," said Michael Baker, a NASA manager who took part in the proceedings. "From now on, I think that all of our endeavors in space, human endeavors, will be joint. It's a worldwide effort."

Sixteen countries are participating in the dlrs 60 billion-plus project, widely considered to be the largest technological enterprise ever undertaken on a global scale.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is particularly thrilled. The space agency sent about 100 employees to the Russian space program's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia to witness the launch.

It is America's first space station since the 1970s Skylab and, unlike that early orbiting outpost, holds the promise of people living continuously in space, beginning with Tuesday's launch. It's also the culmination of the space station proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

"This mission, and this program, is the keystone for the future of human exploration in space. What more do you want to say?" Shepherd said.

The space station, parts of which have been in orbit for two years, is far from perfect, Shepherd noted. But he added: "It needs to be the model for how human beings work in space, to enable going back to the moon and other expeditions farther than Earth."

Shepherd and his crew have been training for NASA's so-called Expedition One mission for nearly five years. The three men will turn on all the life-support systems once they arrive at the 384-kilometer (240-mile) high outpost on Thursday and start tackling all the maintenance and repair work.

They're well aware that everything they do will set the pace, and mood, for years to come. NASA hopes to finish building the space station in 2006 and to operate it as a first-class laboratory until at least 2016 and hopefully long beyond.

The things "that are being done on our flight will continue for many, many years," said Krikalev. "So it's lot of responsibility on our crew."

Krikalev and Gidzenko, both veterans of Russia's Mir space station, have considerably more space experience than Shepherd even though they're a decade younger. NASA was adamant, however, that the first space station commander be American and that that astronaut be Shepherd.

Shepherd, an astronaut since 1984, flew on three space shuttle flights before moving into space station management in 1993, the same year Russia joined the international space station project.

His longest, and most recent, space mission lasted 10 days back in 1992. This mission, by comparison, will last a minimum 115 days. Space shuttle Discovery is supposed to drop off a replacement crew and bring Shepherd and company back at the end of February.

Some Russian space workers have been disgruntled regarding the choice of commander. But Krikalev, one of the world's most experienced spacemen, isn't complaining. Neither is Gidzenko, the commander of the Soyuz spacecraft that will link up with the space station. Gidzenko is a fill-in for a veteran Russian cosmonaut who refused to work for an American with no space station experience.

If the subject bothers him, Shepherd doesn't show it. He's more vocal about the long string of delays that kept him grounded for so long. Until cash-strapped Russia launched the space station's living quarters in July, more than two years late, everything was on hold.

"There were many times where we all felt like we should be doing something else," Shepherd said.