First Brazilian in space

Col. Pontes will spend nine days on the International Space Station, while his fellow travellers, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and US astronaut Jeffrey Williams, will stay for six months.

The rocket released the Soyuz TMA-8 docking vessel with the three astronauts at an altitude of more than 200 kilometres at the start of an 11-day mission for Pontes.

The vessel is due to dock on Saturday with the ISS, the only space station still operating since the closure of Russia’s Mir orbiter in 2001.

According to an AFP journalist who witnessed the blastoff, relatives of Col. Pontes attended to see him off.

As the vessel was entering its orbit, ground control lost communication with the crew but the problem was soon fixed after emergency measures were taken, 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,” Nr Davidenko said.

Mr 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 previously trained at the Johnson space centre in the US state of Texas from 1998.

The launch was broadcast live on Brazilian television.

On the eve of his launch, Mr Pontes dismissed those who saw as bad omens the fact that this is the 13th mission to the ISS — a number considered unlucky in many countries — and that the flight coincided with the solar eclipse.

Ahead of the take-off from the same launchpad that the first man in space, Yury Gagarin, blasted off from on his historic mission on April 12, 1961, Pontes expressed his admiration for the Soviet cosmonaut.

“Gagarin is an idol for me,” Mr 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.

Mr Vinogradov and Mr Williams will spend six months on the ISS and will prepare for the arrival of a US space vessel carrying Germany’s Thomas Reiter, who will be the first European to make an extended stay on the space station.

The US space vessel’s launch has been put off until July 1 after a first test flight following the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, NASA said earlier.

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