BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) – A Russian space capsule blasted off Wednesday into the searing hot afternoon skies of Central Asia on a landmark mission to expand the permanent human presence in space.

The Soyuz craft carrying Canadian Bob Thirsk, Russian Roman Romanenko and Belgian Frank De Winne soared above Kazakhstan’s southern steppe to begin a two-day journey to the international space station – the largest man-made object in the earth’s orbit.

Hundreds of journalists, relatives, visiting space enthusiasts and dignitaries, including Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium, thronged in and around two rickety wooden viewing stands a mile away, taking pictures and applauding as the rocket’s propulsion system shook the earth.

Liftoff was on schedule at from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome, despite fears that windy weather earlier would delay the launch. The capsule is expected to dock with the space station Friday.

The three astronauts on the Soyuz will join the three crew members already on the station, forming a six-member permanent crew for the first time.

Thirsk’s 81-year-old mother, Eva, beamed with delight and her voiced wavered as she spoke of her joy at the successful start to her son’s second mission in space.

“He’s doing what he wants to do. And he’s so happy about it, and I’m so happy for him,” she said.

Thirsk, 55, stands to become the first Canadian to spend six months in space, easily outstripping other Canadian astronauts and his own previous 17-day trip on the space shuttle Columbia in 1996.

In another first, De Winne, 48, will become the first European Space Agency astronaut to take command of the station when he takes over from Russian Gennady Padalka in October.

“It is quite an achievement,” said Belgium’s Philippe. “He represents Europe, he represents Belgium, he represents international collaboration for peaceful application of science.”

Romanenko, 37, is the second Russian to follow his father into space. Yuri Romanenko, who flew as a space commander in the 1970s and 1980s, also attended the launch.

International space officials and astronauts praised it.

“The Russians do a magnificent record of taking people to space and back,” Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said. “They don’t have a launch window, they don’t have launch date, they have a launch second.”

The Soyuz capsule will be hooked to the space station until it is used in the future by astronauts returning to Earth.

The newest crew members will further consolidate the international credentials of the space station, which is currently occupied by Padalka, U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt and Japan’s Koichi Wakata.

Speaking at a news conference on the eve of the launch, De Winne hailed the strengths of the international approach to space exploration.

“To maintain six people onboard by one single nation in a space station would be impossible,” he said.

Experts also say the enlarged crew will allow for greater advances in scientific research.

“The kinds of science, the amount of science – all of that is going to be expanded once we get our feet planted with the six people onboard,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said.

Canada’s space agency has planned a dozen experiments to study the effects of weightlessness on the human body. Equipment for a number of European experiments is awaiting a launch on a shuttle in August.

More people in space will also mean more trash, however, and Russian, European and Japanese agencies are mobilizing a range of transportation vehicles to smoothly transfer material to and from the station.

Astronauts from the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour worked late last year to remodel and expand the station, delivering a new bathroom, a kitchenette, an exercise machine, two sleeping quarters and a recycling system that converts astronauts’ urine and sweat into drinking water.

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