A Russian Proton rocket carrying the first module of the $67 billion international space station blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan early Friday, kicking off a long-awaited - and long-delayed - new era in spaceflight.
Under a clear sky, the powerful Proton rocket climbed majestically away from its firing stand atop a brilliant jet of flame as it lifted the 42,000-pound Zarya control module
Russian space officials and others cheered as ground control announced that the capsule had separated from its booster rocket and reached its first orbit 125 miles above Earth. "Success!" shouted one official shortly after the launch just before 2 a. m, EST.
CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood reports that officials from the space agencies of 16 nations participating in the project watched the liftoff from three miles away. Strategic Rocket Forces troops who had prepared the launch were in underground bunkers to avoid poisoning by the highly toxic rocket fuel.
The launch went smoothly, with the giant rocket soaring into the cloudy sky above the central Asian steppes. Its roar reverberated for dozens of miles across the empty plain around the base.
Over the next several days, flight controllers will activate and check out Zarya's myriad systems to prepare the spacecraft for the arrival early next month of the shuttle Endeavour and the first U.S. component, a $350 million node called Unity that will serve as a gateway to future modules.
The international space station, the U.S.-led successor to Russia's beleaguered Mir, will serve as an orbital home for visiting astronauts and cosmonauts for at least 15 years.
The 41.2-feet Zarya, or Sunrise, was launched by a three-stage Proton booster rocket. Zarya is designed to serve as a space tugboat in the early stages of the project, providing propulsion, power, and communications.
Russian and U.S. officials said the launch was "flawless," and the module performed well during initial tests. They cautioned that much work remains before the ambitious space station project will be up and working. It will consist of more than 100 elements that will require 45 assembly flights.
"Now, we only have 44 launches to go, about 1,000 hours of space walks and countless problems, but because of the trust and mutual respect ... the international space station is going to be a reality," NASA chief Daniel Goldin said at a press conference after the launch.
His Russian counterpart, Yuri Koptev, said the launch was a vital vindication for the troubled Russian space industry, proving it could play a major role in space operations.
"The Russian space industry is alive and well and is perfectly able to fulfill all of its commitments on the international space station," he said.
The mood was tense before the 24-ton cargo module was sent into space, with officials and workers anxiously making last-minte checks.
The launch of the module ushers in a new era of cooperation among former space-race rivals. The station involves 16 nations, but Russia's crucial participation has been hampered by the country's financial problems.
The launch of the first segment was delayed more than a year, mainly because the chronically broke Russian space agency couldn't afford to complete a Russian crew module that is set to blast off next July or August.
The space station will not be habitable until at least early 2000, following the launch of the crew module. It is scheduled to be completed by 2004.
The space station is expected to cost at least $40 billion, with the United States planning to pay $24 billion.
The station was first proposed by President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union address. At that time, the station was advertised as an $8 billion project. Since then, more realistic accounting, technical problems, and numerous redesigns has hike the price tag to $24 billion, or some $67 billion when shuttle transportation costs and non-Russian international
contributions are thrown in.
Having lost hope of getting promised government funds, the Russian space agency has sold research time on the station to NASA for $60 million to complete the crew module.
Russia is expected to retire the Mir sometime next year, although some officials have talked about trying to keep it aloft longer.
Zarya is to fly alone for two weeks before a rendezvous with the American space shuttle Endeavour, which is to be launched Dec. 3 carrying the Unity connecting module.
Russia rents the Baikonur launching pad from Kazakstan.