CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Four astronauts from four countries flew toward the International Space Station on Saturday.

They should reach the orbiting lab on Sunday with their SpaceX capsule, replacing four astronauts who have been living up there since March.

A NASA astronaut was escorted by airmen from Denmark, Japan and Russia during the pre-dawn launch from Kennedy Space Center. They clutched each other’s gloved hands as they reached orbit.

It was the first US launch where every seat on a spacecraft was occupied by a different country – previously, NASA always carried two or three of its own seats on its SpaceX taxi flights. A coincidence in the timing led to the operations, officials said.

“We are a united team with a common mission,” radioed Jasmin Moghbeli from NASA from orbit. Ken Bowersox, NASA’s chief of space missions, added, “Boy, what a beautiful launch… and with four international crew members, it’s really exciting stuff.”

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Moghbeli, a naval pilot serving as commander, is joined on the six-month mission by the European Space Agency’s Andreas Mogensen, Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa and Russia’s Konstantin Borisov.

“In order to explore space, we have to do it together,” said the Director General of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, a few minutes before the start. “Space is truly global and international cooperation is key.”

The astronauts’ paths into space could not be more different.

Moghbeli’s parents fled Iran during the 1979 revolution. Born in Germany and raised on New York’s Long Island, she joined the Marines and flew gunships in Afghanistan. The first astronaut wants to show Iranian girls that they too can achieve high goals. “Believing in yourself is something really powerful,” she said before the flight.

After studying engineering, Mogensen worked on oil platforms off the West African coast. He told people confused about his career choice that “in the future we’re going to need drillers in space,” like Bruce Willis’ character in the killer asteroid movie Armageddon. He believes the oil rig experience led to his selection as Denmark’s first astronaut.

Furukawa worked as a surgeon for a decade before making Japan’s astronaut incision. Like Mogensen, he has visited the station before.

A space newbie, Borisov turned to engineering after earning a degree in business administration. He runs a freediving school in Moscow and judges the sport in which divers forgo oxygen tanks and hold their breath underwater.

One of the advantages of an international crew is the food. Delicacies that are on the rise include Persian herb stew, Danish chocolate and Japanese mackerel.

SpaceX’s first stage launch vehicle returned to Cape Canaveral minutes after liftoff, a special treat for the thousands of spectators gathered in the early morning darkness.

The launch was delayed by one day to allow for additional data checks on the valves in the capsule’s life support system. The countdown nearly stopped again on Saturday after a tiny fuel leak occurred in the capsule’s engine system. SpaceX engineers have been able to confirm that the leak poses no threat with just under two minutes left on the clock, said Benji Reed, the company’s executive director of human spaceflight.

Another NASA astronaut will launch to the station from Kazakhstan in mid-September as part of a swap deal with two Russians.

SpaceX has now launched eight crews for NASA. Boeing was phased out at the same time nearly a decade ago, but has yet to fly astronauts. The crew capsule is grounded by 2024 due to parachute and other problems.

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