Brazil's 1st Astronaut Heads to ISS
March 30, 2006— Brazil's first astronaut, Marcos Pontes, blasted off Thursday on an 11-day mission into space aboard a Soyuz rocket launched from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome.
The rocket blasted off at 9:30 p.m. ET headed for the International Space Station with Pontes, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams aboard.
"It's very moving. For the first time a Brazilian is going into space. It's the fruit of many years' work and sacrifice," Sergio Gaudenzi, head of the Brazilian Space Agency, told reporters at Baikonur, which is located on Kazakhstan's steppe and leased by Russia.
Pontes' wife Fatima shed tears of joy.
"Everything worked. We're happy," she said at the launch.
The rocket released the Soyuz TMA-8 docking vessel with the three astronauts aboard at an altitude of more than 200 kilometers (125 miles). The vessel is due to dock on Saturday with the ISS.
Ground control briefly lost contact with the vessel as it entered its orbit due to a technical problem, but it was soon fixed and contact restored, RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
"We are happy we can play a part in the mission of the first Brazilian astronaut. He will undoubtedly become a national hero for Brazil," Vyacheslav Davidenko, spokesman for Russia's space agency Roskosmos, told AFP earlier. "Marcos Pontes will allow his country to join the club of space powers," he said.
Pontes, a 43-year-old Brazilian air force officer, has been training since last October at Star City near Moscow and arrived at Baikonur with his colleagues on March 18. He had previously trained at the Johnson space center in Texas from 1998.
On the eve of the launch, Pontes said the fact that his was the 13th mission to the ISS — a number considered unlucky in many countries — and that the flight coincided with the solar eclipse were good omens.
"Many people ask about the number 13, linking it to the eclipse and the alignment of the stars. I think everything is aligning for a very good mission," Pontes said.
Ahead of the takeoff, Pontes expressed his admiration for the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who blasted off from the same launchpad on April 12, 1961.
"Gagarin is an idol for me. Here I've had the chance to see the places where he was and where he trained, as well as realizing how this nation treasures his example," Pontes said.
During the mission, Pontes will carry out a series of scientific experiments, including in the field of nanotechnology. He will also examine Brazil's surface from space.
Ahead of his departure, Pontes admitted to having had trouble with the Russian language and the country's freezing winter weather but said he was sad to leave after making many Russian friends.
Vinogradov and Williams are set to spend six months on the space station and will prepare for the arrival of a space shuttle carrying Germany's Thomas Reiter, who will be the first European to make an extended stay on the ISS.
The U.S. launch has been put off until July 1 after a first test flight following the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, NASA said earlier.
Pontes is set to return to Earth on April 9 together with astronauts from a previous mission to the ISS, William MacArthur of the United States and Russia's Valery Tokarev, who have been in space since October 2005.