Dr. Norman Thagard blasted off from Kazazhstan in a Soyuz spacecraft this morning with two Russian cosmonauts, becoming the first American astronaut to fly in a Russian rocket. Once the craft docks with the Russian space station Mir on Thursday, Thagard will spend 90 days working with the Russian crew, studying the cardiovascular, neurological and other physical effects on the crew of living in near-zero gravity for a protracted period of time. This mission, along with Thagard's study, is part of a joint venture among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency for a permanently manned multi-billion dollar orbiting space station called Alpha, which is expected to be completed by 2002. "This is definitely the start of something big," notes TIME aerospace reporter Jerry Hannifin. "Thagard is going where no American has gone before." The mission will also set another record, bringing the total number of humans orbiting Earth simultaneously to an all-time high of 13.