BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN – A Soyuz spacecraft carrying astronauts from Russia, Japan and the United States bound for the International Space Station successfully lifted off on a rocket Thursday from a launch site in Kazakhstan.
The 50-meter-high, three-stage rocket with the spacecraft carrying Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, 50, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, 53, and NASA astronaut Richard Mastracchio, 53, blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 10:14 a.m.
The spacecraft separated from the rocket and entered orbit about nine minutes later, as scheduled. The Soyuz arrived at the ISS at an altitude of about 400 km Thursday night Japan time.
Wakata will remain on the ISS until next May and captain the station for the final two months of his six-month stay, becoming its first Japanese skipper.
The rocket was also carrying the Olympic torch for the Sochi Winter Games to be held in February in the Russian port city. It will make its way to the ISS before being taken into space itself — making it the Olympic flame’s first space walk in history.
For safety reasons, the torch will not be lit while on the ISS. Lighting it would consume precious oxygen and pose a threat to the crew. Instead, the crew will carry the unlit torch around the station’s numerous modules before taking it out on a space walk.
The torch has flown into space once before — in 1996 aboard the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis for the Atlanta Summer Olympics — but it will be taken outside a spacecraft for the first time in history.
“It’s a great pleasure and responsibility getting to work with this symbol of peace,” Tyurin told journalists Wednesday ahead of the launch.
The torch will remain in space for five days.
While aboard the ISS, Wakata will conduct a number of experiments, including filming the ISON comet with a high-definition camera while releasing a micro-satellite developed by Japan and Vietnam.