Russian rocket launches new crew to space

A Soyuz rocket blasted off with an international crew of three toward the International Space Station on Sunday in a mission testing the reliability of Russia's crisis-prone space programme.

NASA's Sunita Williams and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and Yury Malenchenko of Russia started their journey on top of the Soyuz-FG under the open skies of the Kazakh steppe on schedule and without a hitch.

The trio gave big thumbs up after the needle-shaped craft pierced a thin layering of white clouds and safely reached orbit about nine minutes later.

"Goodbye Planet Earth for now! Woo Hoo!" Williams tweeted a few hours before the 305-tonne craft shook the ground with a violent orange explosion of booster rocket flames.

Russia's Roscosmos space programme chief Vladimir Popovkin told reporters that he spoke briefly to the crew members a few minutes into their journey and "They feel fine. I have no doubts that everything will go well."

Live footage from inside the Soyuz TMA-05M capsule that will dock to the ISS after a two-day journey showed a small doll in a red dress hanging before the three space travellers as a good luck charm as the rocket gathered pace.

The astronauts read calmly through thick printouts of their crew procedures while mission commander Malenchenko picked at some of the more distant controls on the panel with a black stick in his hand.

"That is one of the more low-tech aspects of the Soyuz spacecraft," the NASA flight commentator said in a live video feed.

"Some of those buttons are a little bit far away from the crew members so that stick makes it a little easier for him to access the controls."

The workhorse of Russian spaceflight -- briefly grounded last year amid a spate of launch accidents affecting cargo craft and satellites -- today represents the world's last human link to the international science lab.

The final launch of a US satellite in July 2011 left nations dependent on the reliability of Russia's Soviet-era space achievements while governments and private companies scramble for new ways to launch humans to the station and beyond.

The US company SpaceX blazed a new path for private spaceflight by sending a cargo vessel called Dragon to the ISS in May.

But the reliability of such spacecraft is still too untested to entrust them with humans even as other companies join the private space race.

Russia's underfunded Roscosmos agency meanwhile has been hit by turmoil that saw several changes in leadership and bickering with other segments of the space programme -- particularly those responsible for updating the Soyuz.

Roscosmos had earlier this year released a somewhat vague mission statement through 2030 that emphasised new voyages to the Moon and the further scientific exploration of Mars while downplaying human spaceflight.

It also placed a short-term emphasis on purchasing foreign technology that could help bring Russia up to par with the United States.

The team speeding toward the ISS will join Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin as well as NASA astronaut Joseph Acaba -- a crew that lifted off from the Moscow-leased launch centre in Kazakhstan on May 15.

Both Williams and Akihiko have experience on board the space station but had never before travelled on the Soyuz.

Akihiko particularly expressed thanks to those preparing the Russian craft for the journey and tweeted that "everybody is working with pride."

Williams -- a naval aviator who was once deployed to Iraq -- for her part told reporters that she will be excited to watch the London Summer Olympic Games from the station and put a much more global perspective on the event.

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