A newly modernised Russian Soyuz rocket carrying three astronauts blasted off Friday for the International Space Station, watched in an unexpected twist by glamorous spy Anna Chapman.
The rocket, carrying two Russians and an American, took off into the night sky on schedule at 3:11 am Moscow time (23:11 GMT Thursday) from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Russian space officials said the launch had worked without a hitch and the craft successfully went into orbit. But the rare public appearance by Chapman stole the show from the efficiency of the Russian space programme.
Dressed in a scarlet peacoat, she was spotted in front of the astronauts’ hotel in Baikonur before the lift-off as they boarded a bus to go to the launch. She was swiftly led away by a guard after being recognised by journalists.
The auburn-haired Chapman was at the centre of the biggest spy crisis between the United States and Russia since the Cold War as one of the US-based “sleeper” agents who in July were exchanged in a dramatic spy swap.
Since her arrival back in Moscow she has posed in cocktail dresses for a weekly magazine and appeared at a party at a nightclub, but has not given any interviews about her experience.
Russian media reports said she has been working as an advisor for a bank that is involved in the Russian space programme but officials at Russia’s space agency Roskosmos were quick to deny it was involved in her visit.
“Roskosmos has nothing to do with Anna Chapman’s visit. As far as we know, she came here as a private individual on the invitation of an executive of a commercial bank,” a Roskosmos official said.
“Miss Chapman neither met with the Roskosmos leadership nor with members of the Soyuz crew,” the official told the Interfax news agency.
The Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft is a modernised version of the ship used by Russia to put humans into the space. It is the first such craft to be fully equipped with a digital measuring system and Friday’s launch was the first time the new design has been used.
The spacecraft is due to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) at 4:02 am Moscow time (0:02 GMT) on Sunday.
The crew includes one of Russia’s most experienced spacemen, Alexander Kaleri, whose first mission was in March 1992 to the now defunct Russian space station Mir. He has already made four flights.
Joining him are American Scott Kelly, who has made two spaceflights and Oleg Skripochka, who is making his first.
On board the ISS, where they will spend the next five months, they will join Americans Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker as well as Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin.
“Everyone is feeling good. Everything is fine on board,” Kaleri reported back to mission control, images broadcast on state television showed.
Their flight comes after the ISS saw a rare hiccup last month when the return of the Russian Soyuz capsule carrying three crew back to earth was delayed by 24 hours after the Soyuz craft failed to undock from the ISS.
The failure, caused by a small technical fault, was the first such mishap in a decade of ISS flights.
Russian officials also admitted another problem this week when it emerged that Russian Soyuz spacecraft due to launch on December 13 suffered damage to its container in transit on its way to Baikonur.
Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov said its components had shifted by two milimetres but insisted that the next mission would be on schedule. However sources quoted by Interfax said a delay until 2011 was possible.
The burden on the Russian space programme is set to grow in the next months as NASA withdraws the space shuttle from service, meaning that the Soyuz craft will for several years be the only vehicle for transporting humans to space.
Two more shuttle flights are currently planned, with Discovery in November and Endeavour in February, although another is also possible later in 2011.
The commander on the Endeavour flight is due to be Scott Kelly’s twin brother Mark, meaning that if all goes to plan the two are set for an unprecedented reunion aboard the ISS.