American, Italian, Russian blast off for ISS

Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV
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A NASA commentator called it a "textbook launch"

US, Italian and Russian astronauts blasted into space Saturday, headed for the International Space Station, in a launch coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA's Andrew Morgan and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency set off on a six-hour journey to the orbiting science lab from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1628 GMT.

A statement published on the Roscosmos website after the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft entered space stated that "all stages of the flight proceeded according to plan."

A NASA TV commentator hailed a "textbook launch" amid "sweltering" weather at Baikonur, where daytime temperatures reached 43 degrees Celsius on Saturday.

The blast coincides with the date that NASA's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969, marking a defining moment in the so-called "space race" with the Soviet Union.

Of the trio launching from the Kazakh steppe, only 53-year-old Skvortsov had been born at the time of the Moon landing.

A veteran of two ISS missions, Skvortsov is the flight commander for the six-hour journey from Baikonur to the ISS.

Morgan, 43, is flying for the first time.

- 'Hardest part: saying goodbye' -

"The absolute hardest part: saying good-bye and watching them walk away," wrote the father-of-four in a Saturday tweet featuring a picture of his wife and children.

Parmitano's only previous stint at the ISS lasted 166 days and saw him become the first Italian to carry out a spacewalk.

"L-2 h 30 min: One more look at my planet… it’s time to climb aboard our rocket. Next stop @Space_Station," the Italian tweeted.

Skvortsov, Morgan and Parmitano all come from military backgrounds and posed together in uniform in the build up to the launch.

Speaking during a pre-launch press-conference on Friday Skvortsov joked that "two colonels will be taking orders from a colonel" when Parmitano becomes commander of the space station mid-way through his mission -- a reference to the military rank the three share.

The trio will be welcomed into the ISS by Nick Hague and Christina Koch of NASA and Alexey Ovchinin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos after docking which is expected at around 2250 GMT.

- 'Lucky and privileged' -

Ahead of the launch, 42-year-old Parmitano said the crew were "lucky and privileged" to have their launch coincide with the Apollo 11 date, and indicated that they were wearing badges honouring the anniversary.

Morgan paid tribute to the Apollo 11 landing as a "victory for all of mankind" but ducked a question on whether Russian cosmonauts would ever reach the Moon -- the Soviet Union only ever sent unmanned missions there.

NASA was "even more capable" of accomplishing great things when it did so "as part of an international cooperation," Morgan said.

Five decades after the 1969 moon landing, Russia and the West are still competing in space, even if the emphasis is on cooperation at the ISS.

NASA no longer operates manned flights to the ISS leaving it wholly dependent on Roscosmos' Soyuz program.

But in recent times private companies like SpaceX and Boeing have bid to end the Russian monopoly on manned launches to the ISS, winning multi-billion contracts with NASA.

US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has set an ambitious deadline to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

The project -- named Artemis -- would be the first attempt to send humans to the lunar surface since the last Apollo landing in 1972.

Some experts doubt if the deadline is realistic, given budgetary constraints and delays in developing the next-generation rockets and equipment needed for the journey.

The International Space Station has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,000 miles per hour) since 1998.