A NASA astronaut from Yonkers and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off Tuesday in pre-dawn darkness, riding into orbit on a Soyuz craft emblazoned with the portrait of the first man in space in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight.
The launch from Russia's cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was the first for the two Russian astronauts. Yonkers-born Ron Garan, 49, had been to space once before. He completed his first space flight in 2008 and has logged over 13 days in space in three spacewalks.
In his final message on Twitter before setting out on the six-month mission, Garan said:
"Thanks to everyone for all the words of encouragement. They really mean a great deal to me. Final preps are in work. We're ready!"
Garan wrote earlier Tuesday on Twitter that he had picked U2's "One" and Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms" as music to listen to during the flight.
The Roosevelt High School graduate who later flew missions for the Air Force in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm has promised to keep sending Twitter messages and blogging at Fragile Earth, a shared blog written by several astronauts.
Garan earned his bachelor's of science degree in business economics from the SUNY College at Oneonta in 1982. He married a woman from Brooklyn and the couple has three sons together. Garan's father, Ronald Garan Sr., still lives in Yonkers. His mother lives in Florida.
Tuesday's launch was seven days shy of anniversaries of two space milestones: Gagarin's flight into orbit in 1961 from the same launch pad and the first flight of the U.S. space shuttle 20 years later.
As the Soyuz TMA-21 launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome as scheduled at 4:18 a.m. (2218 GMT), it turned the darkness into broad daylight for several moments and warmed the chilly steppe of Kazakhstan with a bright orange glow.
About nine minutes into the flight to the International Space Station, officials announced that the spacecraft had successfully reached orbit.
"They're feeling very good. They're very happy," said NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, who watched the launch from the viewing platform. Stott has been on two space flights, including the final mission of Space Shuttle Discovery, which landed March 9.
Live footage on NASA TV showed that a small stuffed dog hanging in front of the crew had begun to float, an indication of the weightlessness of space. The toy dog had been given to the Russian commander, Alexander Samokutyayev, by his daughter.
Mike Suffredini, head of NASA's International Space Station program, said the launch went off completely as planned.
"It was perfect, quite appropriate for the anniversary," he told The Associated Press at Baikonur.
Speaking to reporters the day before the launch, Garan noted how much space flight has changed since Gagarin was launched during the space race between the two Cold War superpowers.
"Fifty years ago, one nation launched one man, basically as a competition," he said. "Today, the three of us represent the many nations of the international partnership that makes up the International Space Station."
In line with a now 50-year tradition, the crew earlier this week visited the cabin where Gagarin spent his last night before his flight. The American astronaut admitted getting "a little bit of chills" when he visited the cabin, where all the furniture and even Gagarin's personal belongings have been kept intact.
NASA is retiring its 30-year-old space shuttle program with Shuttle Endeavor's flight April 19 and the final trip of Atlantis this summer. After that, Soyuz will be the only means to carry astronauts into space.
A prospective successor to the space shuttle, Constellation, was canceled in October after President Barack Obama proposed eliminating public funds for the program and attracting corporate money to develop a replacement.