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Brazilian and Russia-US crew blast off to space

Written by: Staff

Baikonur (Kazakhstan), Mar 30: Brazil's first astronaut blasted off from earth on a cloudless day today with a Russia-US 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 US 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 launch.

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,'' she 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 rocket took off at 0230 GMT from the Baikonur cosmodrome, on a piece of Kazakh steppe rented by Russia from its ex-Soviet neighbour. It is scheduled to dock in two days' time.

Soon after launch the first stage of the rocket fell away 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 programme manager.

Russian spacecraft bear the responsibility for shipping crew and supplies to the station after NASA grounded its shuttle fleet in July when it failed to fix a technical problem that killed seven astronauts in 2003.

Soyuz rockets have proved safer than the shuttle despite their 1960s heritage.

A polar bear mascot, a symbol of Vinogradov's native eastern Siberia, dangled in the capsule.


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