BAIKONUR, Kazakstan -- Up from the same launch pad where the Space Age began 43 years ago, a Russian rocket blasted off Tuesday carrying one American and two Russians -- the first crew slated to live in the new international space station.
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 snug Soyuz capsule along with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev.
"Let's go do it!" Shepherd shouted before boarding the rocket.
The 17-story green rocket, transformed into a frosty white by the super-cold fuel, vanished into dense fog three seconds after liftoff. Its brightly burning engines were visible several seconds later as the rocket gained speed and altitude.
The roar, by then, was deafening to the more than 500 gathered at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in central Asia. The cosmodrome is the launch pad where the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, took off in 1957 and where the world's first spaceman, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, departed in 1961 -- a significance not lost on the crowd.
"It's history again repeating itself -- in a different way," said Joe Rothenberg, head of NASA's human space flight program. "Space shouldn't be the same again."
Graphic illustrates interior view of Zvezda service module, which will serve as the living quarters for the first long-term crew of the international space station; 3c x 11 inches; 164 mm x about 280 mm
NASA considers the mission every bit as important as the Apollo moon landings. 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. It's also the culmination of the space station proposed by President Reagan in 1984.
The space station was zooming over the Sahara when Shepherd and his crew took off on their extremely belated journey.
Nine minutes later, Shepherd and his crew were safely in orbit, prompting tears and applause from the crowd of more than 500. The crew members will reach their new home on Thursday and settle in for a four-month stay.
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin and top Russian space officials celebrated with Scotch whisky.
"It's a wonderful day, not for America, not for Russia, but for the people who live on this planet," Goldin said.
Sixteen countries are participating in the $60 billion-plus project, widely considered to be the largest technological enterprise ever undertaken on a global scale.
"There are so many people who felt maybe we couldn't do it. But it's happening, period. It's here," Goldin said. "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, 51, 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 in an emotional send-off.
Dozens of space officials and journalists had watched masked technicians check their spacesuits the day before from behind a glass wall, erected to keep germs away from the spacemen.
Shepherd defended his appointment as skipper and expressed his keen desire to get started on a mission that's been in the works -- and on hold -- for years because of funding problems by cash-strapped Russia.
Shepherd and his crew have been training for NASA's so-called Expedition One mission for nearly five years.
On the Net:
An interactive graphic on the international space station, http://wire.ap.org.
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