Sunita Williams on her 2nd space odyssey

Baikonur (Kazakhstan): Indian-American record-setting astronaut Sunita Williams along with her two colleagues today took off for her second space odyssey on a Russian Soyuz rocket, which blasted off successfully from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

46-year-old NASA astronaut Williams, Russian Soyuz Commander Yuri Malenchenko and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency flight engineer Akihiko Hoshide started their two-day voyage at O8.10 am IST for a four-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS). Russia`s Federal Space Agency Roscosmos announced that the spacecraft had departed successfully from the carrier rocket and reached intermediate orbit.

"The spacecraft separated from the third stage of the carrier rocket in a normal regime and at the designated time," the agency said. The Soyuz TMA spacecraft is due to dock with the ISS`s Zvezda service module at 10.22 am IST on Tuesday. Born in Euclid in Ohio and raised in Massachusetts, Williams, who had earlier lived and worked aboard the ISS for six months in 2006-07, will further extend the record for the longest stay in space for a woman astronaut.

Ahead of the launch, she told reporters that the test mission laid the ground for a long-standing friendship and collaboration in the space programme. She also said that she will be excited to watch the London Summer Olympics from the station and put a much more global perspective on the mega sporting event beginning July 27.

Williams, a flight engineer on the station`s Expedition 32 crew, will take over as commander of Expedition 33 on reaching the space station. The trio will join the current ISS occupants – Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, who have been in orbit since May 17. The six crew members will work together for about two months. Acaba, Padalka and Revin are scheduled to return to Earth on September 17.

Before they depart, Padalka will hand over command of the station and Expedition 33 to Williams. She, Malenchenko and Hoshide will return home in mid-November, NASA said. The new crew members are expected to conduct over 30 scientific missions during their stay aboard the ISS. Williams, whose father hailed from Gujarat, was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1998. She was assigned to the ISS as a member of Expedition 14 and then joined Expedition 15.

She holds the record of the longest spaceflight — 195 days — for woman space travellers. She received a Master`s degree from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1995. In the space, Williams and her team of astronauts plan an orbital sporting event to mark the Summer Olympics in London. Both Williams and Akihiko have experience on board the space station but had never before travelled on the Soyuz. Earlier they had travelled aboard a US space shuttle. "Getting my haircut. Next one will be on ISS!" Akihiko tweeted on the eve of the launch.

For Malenchenko, one of the most experienced Russian cosmonauts, it is his fifth long-duration spaceflight. Malenchenko, who is piloting the Soyuz spaceship, was a member of three long expeditions to the Mir orbital station, the International Space Station and one shuttle flight. Russian Soyuz-family spacecraft remain the only means of transportation for crew members to and from the orbital station until at least 2015.