BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan: A Soyuz craft was placed into launch position at a Russian-leased facility in the freezing, windswept southern Kazakhstan steppe Monday ahead of the start to a five-month mission for three astronauts at the International Space Station.
The craft was rolled out of its hangar on a flatbed train at exactly 7 a.m. local time (0100 GMT), in strict accordance with tradition. NASA's Tom Marshburn, Russian Federal Space Agency's Roman Romanenko, and Canadian Space Agency's Chris Hadfield will blast off Wednesday and travel for two days before reaching three other astronauts working at the orbiting laboratory.
Colleagues, friends and family withstood temperatures as low as -22 Fahrenheit (-30 degrees Celsius), worsened by chilly wind, to watch the Soyuz being hoisted up at the site where Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin began the first voyage to space in 1961.
Although the temperature was lower in other parts of Kazakhstan - it was -43.6 Fahrenheit (-42 degrees Celsius) in the capital, Astana locals assert with a hint of pride that the exposed steppe makes it far more uncomfortable in Baikonur.
Space insiders say the glacial conditions have little effect on the Soyuz, however.
''There are very few weather requirements or restrictions for the launch of the Soyuz vehicle,'' veteran NASA astronaut Mike Fossum said, just ahead of the Soyuz being winched into position. ''We launch a couple of days from now in similar conditions and we are without any concerns.''
The current Soyuz craft is a variation on the vehicle that has been in constant use by the Soviet and then Russian manned space programs since 1967. The entire structure erected into place Monday consists of Soyuz TMA-07M craft sitting on top of a Soyuz-FG rocket. The three-man crew, which has been in Baikonur for almost two weeks making final preparations, took a tour Sunday of the hangar where the craft was being kept.
''Incredibly impressive to see the final assembly of the rocket that will throw us into orbit. This is one excited crew!'' Marshburn wrote on his Twitter account.