Britain’s star astronaut Tim Peake has started his mission on the International Space Station after a perfect rocket launch watched by his family.
A Russian Soyuz FG rocket blasted Major Peake, 43, into a clear sky over the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11.03 GMT on Tuesday, precisely on time.
In under 10 minutes he was in space, and after a tense few minutes when the automatic docking system had to be diverted to manual control, his orbiting capsule locked on to the ISS.
Major Peake was the second to climb through the hatch, with his two travelling companions, Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko and American astronaut Tim Kopra.
In a live link to family and friends viewing the drama on a cinema screen in a Baikonur theatre, he said of the journey: “It was a beautiful launch, that sunrise was absolutely spectacular. We also got the benefit of a moon rise which was beautiful to see.
“To Europe and the UK, I hope you enjoyed the show.”
His wife Rebecca told him: “There were quite a few parties down on the ground, so your launch was well celebrated by everybody down here. Have a great mission. We love you.”
A former Army aviator and helicopter test pilot, Major Peake is the first Briton to join the crew of the ISS. He is also the first fully British professional astronaut working for a space agency.
Previous “Brits in space” have either had US or dual citizenship or been on privately funded or sponsored trips. Major Peake is employed by the European Space Agency (Esa) and sports a Union flag on his sleeve.
During his six-month mission, called Principia in homage to Sir Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking text on gravity and motion, he will participate in some 265 experiments and engage with schools around the UK.
The launch went off in spectacular fashion, assisted by Major Peake’s two boys Thomas, six, and Oliver, four, who counted down to the moment the rocket roared into the air.
It took six hours for the tiny Soyuz TMA-19M to catch up with the space station, travelling at 17,500mph, 250 miles above the Earth.
Then there was a technical problem that meant Malenchenko had to steer the craft in manually, using a cross-hair targeting sight.
In the end the docking went smoothly and the Soyuz was firmly attached to the space station. The hatch was opened at 7.58pm, UK time on Tuesday.
Afterwards a smiling Rebecca said: “Tim looked so happy. He looked like he’d been there six months already.
“Today was better than I could have imagined. The launch was spectacular and it’s rare to have a day-time launch. Everybody commented on how beautiful it was.”
She added: “I have say it was a relief this morning, once we knew he was up there and the solar arrays had opened and everything was nominal. It was, like, yep, that’s it, they’re on their way.”
There were emotional scenes earlier when Major Peake’s family and friends, including best man and former Army Air Corps buddy Ian Curry, waved goodbye to the astronaut.
Wearing his space suit, Major Peake pressed himself up against a window of the bus taking him to the launch pad and blew kisses and played fist bumps with his sons.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh congratulated Major Peake on his arrival at the space station.
A statement published on the British Monarchy official Twitter account read: “Prince Philip and I are pleased to transmit our best wishes to Major Timothy Peake as he joins the International Space Station in orbit.
“We hope that Major Peake’s work on the Space Station will serve as an inspiration to a new generation of scientists and engineers. The thoughts and prayers of the whole country are with him and the crew, especially at this time of year.
“We join with his friends and family in wishing him a productive mission and a safe return to Earth.”