A few minutes after 4 p.m. Wednesday, Cockeysville native Reid Wiseman officially left the Earth to cheers at his high school alma mater.
The distinction of "going to space" isn't technically earned until one is 50 miles above the Earth's surface, Donald Thomas, a former astronaut now on the faculty at Towson University, told children, parents and Dulaney High School students and alumni gathered in the school's satellite cafeteria to watch the launch.
But Wiseman and German astronaut Alexander Gerst earned it alongside veteran Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, launching from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome at 1:57 a.m. Thursday local time. In Wiseman's hometown, physics students at his alma mater celebrated the occasion at a launch party they organized for the community.
The trio was expected to dock with the International Space Station on Thursday for a six-month stay. Their mission comes at an unusual time in space travel, as the United States lacks the capability to send astronauts into space and faces increased tension with Russia.
For the crowd that included Wiseman's former teachers and classmates, their children, and students who hope to follow in his footsteps, the launch was nonetheless inspirational.
"It's nice to know it can happen," senior Alex Vecchioni said of the possibility of becoming an astronaut. Vecchioni plans to study aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall.
With their graduation later Wednesday night, students from teacher Stephen Shaw's Advanced Placement physics class set up projector screens to show the launch, laptops equipped with a game that simulates orbital mechanics, as well as coloring and crafts. The students advertised the event at nearby schools, drawing children eager to see a rocket launch.
"He's smiling," 7-year-old Nico DeFelice told his father, Nick, when the NASA TV broadcast showed the astronauts giving a thumbs-up as they hurtled through space.
"Of course he is; he's in space," replied the elder DeFelice, who graduated from Dulaney in 1993 alongside Wiseman and lives in Monkton. "It's not often you see somebody you know going into space."
Among those in attendance was Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who noted that two other county natives — Kenwood High's Thomas Jones and Woodlawn High's Robert Curbeam — also ventured into space.
"It just shows that our Baltimore County public schools graduate people with great capabilities," Kamenetz said.
Wiseman also relayed a message to attendees.
"You will make the next scientific discoveries, and you will literally change the course of history," said Thomas, reading from Wiseman's message, which ended with, "Enjoy the show tonight, and go O's."
For the next six months, Wiseman, Gerst and Suraev are slated to conduct experiments and maintain the space station, a project of 15 nations overseen by the U.S. and Russia. The first components of the space station were launched and assembled in 1998. The station has experienced hiccups in recent years, including a coolant leak last year that delayed a resupply mission.
Political tensions between the United States and Russia have strained the collaboration amid Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. This month, Russian officials said they would not support a U.S. proposal to keep the station operating beyond 2020.
Russia also imposed a ban on selling Russian rocket motors for U.S. military launches, a more immediate concern since one of two primary rockets now flying U.S. military missions uses Russian-made engines.
But the tensions are not expected to affect Wiseman's mission or his accomplishments.
"It's just so surreal," said Kristin Chottiner, nee Dollenberg, who played on the golf team alongside Wiseman at Dulaney and brought her two children and husband to watch the launch. "He's so normal, but he's not."
Reuters contributed to this article.