(AP) (AP) - A Russian capsule carrying South Korea's first astronaut and two cosmonauts blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Tuesday, en route to the international space station.
The Soyuz TMA-12 craft lifted off on time, roaring into the evening skies over Kazakhstan's barren steppes before turning down range and entering its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later.
South Korean bioengineer Yi So-yeon, 29, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Volkov will spend two days in the cramped capsule before docking at the orbiting station.
Live footage broadcast from inside the capsule showed Yi So-yeon, 29, smiling and waving and giving the thumbs-up sign.
Hundreds of Korean, Russian and American officials, relatives and other onlookers watched mostly silently as the rocket climbed slowly over the launch pad. Yi's mother, Jung Kum-suk, screamed, then collapsed into the arms of her husband, and four medics in jumpsuits rushed to help her.
NASA said she is the world's youngest-ever female astronaut. She was originally chosen as a backup for Ko San, an expert in artificial intelligence. But he was replaced by Yi in March after Russian officials accused him of the unauthorized removal of technical manuals from the Star City cosmonaut training center near Moscow.
“I have no religion, but I pray for the success of the flight,” said Ko.
Col. Ki Young Chung, a Korean air force flight surgeon monitoring Yi, said the launch was an amazing event for Korea.
“It's our first step to get to space. I'm proud of my country and proud of my duty as a doctor for the Soyuz flight,” he said.
It was also the first space flight for the two cosmonauts.
“Everything is in order,” Volkov said.
His father, Alexander Volkov, is a decorated cosmonaut from the Soviet era. On his last journey, he left Earth as a Soviet citizen and returned as a citizen of the new Russian Federation, following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
He said earlier that he had mixed feelings as he said farewell to his son. “It's hard for me because I know what is ahead for them and I know how hard it is,” he said.
Ahead of the launch, Yi told cheering Russian and Korean well-wishers, including her family, that she felt great as she was escorted to the launch facility. She has expressed hope that her historic journey will encourage the reunification of the divided Korean peninsula.
The South Korean government has a $20 million deal with Russia to co-sponsor the flight in exchange for Yi's trip. She was among 36,000 applicants for the job in a 2006 nationwide competition, and plans to conduct 18 scientific experiments during her nine days on the space station.
The drama behind Ko's replacement by Yi has drawn intense attention from the South Korean and Russian media. Ko has apologized and shrugged off his disappointment at losing his seat on the flight. His employer, the state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute, has rebuked him.
In the South Korean capital, Seoul, thousands gathered in front of City Hall to watch a live telecast of the launch. President Lee Myung-bak told a Cabinet meeting that he hoped the event would boost interest in space business and research.
“Today is a very meaningful day in sending Korea's first citizen into space,” he said.
The lengthy launch preparations are steeped in traditions that have evolved over the past five decades, since Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel to space in 1961. Space travelers always stay in the guarded Cosmonaut Hotel in the city of Baikonur. On Monday night, the crew watched “White Sun of the Desert,” the classic Soviet film set in the early 1920s with no obvious connection to space travel.
Before they left their rooms Tuesday, they signed their names on their doors, observed a minute of silence together and toasted one another with champagne. After returning to Earth, every cosmonaut since Yuri Gagarin has planted a tree on the banks of the Syr Darya River, a short walk from the hotel.
Baikonur, a former missile development center, was built in the middle of Central Asia's steppes, a vast scrubland that stretches roughly from the Caspian Sea to western China. Camels graze along highways, and animals that resemble prairie dogs stand sentry on railroad tracks, looking over the flat landscape.
Yi, who received her doctorate degree in February, has pledged to cook a Korean meal for the crew members at the station, and promised to sing a song for her Soyuz crew mates on Wednesday - Cosmonauts' Day.
Volkov and Kononenko are both scheduled to spend six months as part of the orbiting station's crew. American astronaut Garrett Reisman, who arrived last month on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavor, is currently on board the station.
Yi is to return to Earth on April 19 along with two of the station's current occupants, American astronaut Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko.