BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A Russian Soyuz rocket carrying South Korea’s first astronaut blasted off into space on Tuesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz TMA-12 spaceship disappeared into a clear sky as planned at 5:16 p.m. (1116 GMT) after lifting off from the world’s oldest space launch pad, used by Russia’s Yuri Gagarin when he became the first human in space in 1961.
Yi So-yeon, a 29-year-old nanotechnology engineer, began her journey to the International Space Station (ISS) alongside Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko.
Dozens of Korean fans and officials, their faces painted in the colors of their national flag, cheered and sang as loudspeakers at the launch pad announced the rocket had safely delivered the spaceship into orbit.
“She (Yi) has bravely overcome all the difficulties,” Choi Gi-hyuk, director of astronaut projects at the South Korea Aerospace Research Institute, told Reuters after watching the launch.
“I feel great. Four years of efforts by Korean and Russian experts have finally become successful.”
Yi’s family observed the rocket’s blast-off from a special observation post nearby. Yi’s mother burst into tears as the spaceship turned into a dot and disappeared in the sky.
Originally a reserve candidate, Yi was picked for the flight last month after Russia accused Ko San, the primary South Korean crew member, of removing sensitive documents from a training centre. Ko later apologized for his actions.
In South Korea’s capital Seoul, a crowd of thousands including President Lee Mung-bak and astronaut Yi’s sister watched the launch on wide screen TVs in front of City Hall.
Lee pumped his fist in the air as the rocket soared skyward and the crowd cheered.
The South Korean government paid Russia about $25 million for the right to send the first Korean into space. Along with her Russian colleagues, Yi will conduct scientific experiments at the ISS during her 11-day mission.
Yi has said she would take a bit of Korean culture into outer space by serving the traditional kimchi spicy cabbage and singing a song at a dinner party on the ISS on April 12.
writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Charles Dick.