BAIKONUR COSMODROME, U.S.S.R. -- The first British cosmonaut roared into space Saturday on an eight-day mission to the Mir station, a trip billed as the second commercial manned Soviet flight but ending up with Moscow paying the tab.
A Soyuz TM-12 rocket, the Union Jack and the red Soviet flag with hammer and sickle painted on its sides, blasted off on schedule at 5:50 p.m. with orange flames firing beneath and a roar of its engines that echoed across the Kazakh steppe at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia.
A threat of rain and brisk winds almost forced postponement of the launch carrying Helen Sharman, 27, a chemist from Sheffield, England; mission commander Col. Anatoly Artsebarsky; and civilian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.
Soviet television reported that the crew was smiling and in good spirits minutes before the liftoff.
'Thirty seconds, the flight is normal,' a mission control operator announced just after the launch.
About 100 seconds into the flight, after the spaceship had disappeared into the overcast sky, Sharman smiled broadly and waved at the camera inside the capsule. The image was beamed to mission control and displayed on monitors for several hundred people watching the launch from an observation deck at Baikonur.
The capsule went into orbit two minutes after the launch, embarking on the spiral path that is to deliver it to the Mir on Monday.
'However many emotions there are, we've just been through them all,' Sharman's father, John, said after the liftoff.
Sharman took along on the epic trip a butterfly broach she received from her father as a child, along with a picture of Queen Elizabeth given to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin after he completed man's first space flight in 1961.
Sharman's parents, joined by British Ambassador to Moscow Rodric Braithwaite, watched their daughter soar aloft, standing a half mile from the same launching pad from which Gagarin left Earth to become the first man in space 30 years ago.
Tears welled in their eyes when controllers announced that the launch was successful.
Sharman's mother, Lyndis, hugged and kissed the chief of Soviet cosmonaut training, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shatalov, and told reporters: 'I wasn't worried. I knew she was in good hands.'
The parents spoke with the quarantined Sharman through a glass partition several hours before the launch, and her mother later reported that she had seen no signs of nervousness.
'She was bright and chirpy as ever,' Lyndis Sharman said.
Sharman, who will be the first woman occupant of the Mir since its launch in February 1986, ended the conversation with a breezy, 'Bye, mum.'
Asked what he had told his daughter, John Sharman responded: 'We wished her and her colleagues a happy flight, a successful mission, Godspeed and a happy landing.'
After seeing her off, Sharman's parents ate lunch with Soviet space officials and drank champagne toasts to the success of the mission.
'I'm expecting someone to stick a pin in me to prove it's real,' John Sharman said.
The three cosmonauts boarded the rocket two hours before liftoff, smiling and waving to a crowd of space officials, journalists and Baikonur employees as they appeared on the launch deck.
Sharman wore a British flag patch on her left arm, while her two co- passengers displayed a miniature Soviet banner. The Soviet, British and Kazakh emblems rippled in the wind near the rocket.
Sharman, chosen for the mission from 130,000 applicants who responded to a newspaper advertisement, had appeared calm on the eve of her record-setting space flight and said she was well prepared for the weeklong adventure.
'I have done all the training that was required,' Sharman told reporters. 'I'm ready.'
Sharman, a former employee of the Mars candy company, and the two Russians also carried small blue 'space passports' identifying them as cosmonauts and requesting assistance if they are forced to land outside the Soviet Union.
Krikalev and Artsebarsky, the ninth crew sent to the Mir since its launching five years ago, will replace Viktor Afanasyev and space endurance record holder Musa Manarov, who are to travel back to Earth with Sharman next weekend.
The joint flight, called the Juno project, is the second 'pay as you go flight to the Mir, but unlike November's mission by Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama the Soviets are paying nearly all the costs because the current venture did not find significant British sponsors.
Sharman denied that because Britain canceled its research experiments for lack of money she had become merely a passenger, and her Soviet crewmates supported her.
'We are a crew, and we work as a team,' Krikyolev said. 'There are no passengers.'
Sharman, who had no prior flight experience but is an active athlete, underwent 18 months of training at Star City outside Moscow.
The Mir, a jewel of the Soviet space program, is a cylindrical platform with three expansion modules sent to it for scientific research, which have increased the station's weight to more than 90 tons and given it the appearance of a giant corkscrew.
The space station has experienced a series of problems since its launching, including delays in launching the module addtions, docking difficulties with the expansion components and, last year, a hatch that would not close.
In 1989, a delay in launching the Kvae three additions, forced the Soviets to leave the Mir unmanned for 132 days.