BAIKONUR, Kazakstan — The long-delayed International Space Station got a boost Wednesday when a Russian Proton-K rocket blasted off flawlessly from the Baikonur cosmodrome and pushed the station's service module into orbit.
Russia and the United States have invested high hopes in the Zvezda module, the core of the $60 billion, 16-nation space station project. Without the module, no crews could be sent up to the station, because Zvezda will contain flight controls, sewage system and living quarters.
Russian and U.S. space agency officials at Mission Control outside Moscow and in Baikonur, in the remote stepped of Kazakstan, applauded as the module went into orbit about 10 minutes after being launched at 8:56 a.m. Moscow time. They praised each other for strong commitment to the project.
The launch decided "whether Russia's space program will go on existing or not," said a beaming Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Aerospace Agency. "It decided the fate of a great international space project."
"I have to say that this is one of the happiest and proudest days of my life," said NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. "We set a vision eight years ago and we stuck to that vision."
President Ronald Reagan set the International Space Station program in motion in 1984. Nine years later, with the project in turmoil, President Clinton invited the Russians to join.
However, instead of saving the United States time and money as hoped, the Russians caused even more delays and created even bigger expenses for NASA — some $3 billion. The Zvezda module was launched two years behind schedule.
"We have traveled a very long and difficult road. We wish the road had been a highway but a highway it was not. It was often closed for repairs, and we experienced detours," Koptev said. "Our strength in carrying out this epoch-making project is in our unity, in our support for each other."
The Zvezda module went into orbit unmanned. It is scheduled to dock July 26 by computer with two other space station components, Zarya and Unity, which were launched in 1998. The first crew could go to the station by October, NASA has said.
"Before we pop the champagne corks, we have two more weeks before we dock, but I have a sense everything will be OK," Goldin said.
In the event the automatic linkup goes awry, two cosmonauts are on standby to fly immediately to Zvezda aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur.
A live feed from the cosmodrome was broadcast on console video screens at Mission Control, while a huge screen in front of the officials tracked the rocket's flight from the cosmodrome on the wind-swept steppes of Kazakstan into the cloudless skies.
The rocket's three stages fell away, one at a time, as the module was boosted into orbit around the Earth. As the solar panels and then several antennas unfolded on the module, applause rippled through Mission Control.
A large logo advertising Pizza Hut had been placed about halfway up the rocket, a reflection of the funding problems that have troubled the Russian space program.
Russia says that the 22-ton, 43-foot-long segment cost about $320 million to build. It has severely taxed Moscow's meager financial resources.
The launch could have come sooner if not for two crashes of Proton rockets over Kazakstan last year. Russia insists problems with the rocket have been worked out, and it has put several satellites into orbit with the help of Proton rockets since the crashes.
Before the July 26 docking, space officials on the ground will be testing the control systems and will adjust the orbits of the Zarya-Unity tandem.
The International Space Station is still far from complete. Dozens more modules have to be built, and the station is expected to be finished by 2005 at the earliest, with 46 more planned space launches.
"Each piece builds from the piece before it, so from my perspective all the pieces are important," said Robert Castle Jr., NASA's flight director for shuttle and station mission operations. "This particular part is very important because it allows us to put a crew on the station, a permanent crew."