Russia on Monday successfully resumed sending astronauts to the International Space Station after a break of over five months forced by the crash of a Russian spaceship into Siberia.
Two Russians and an American blasted off to the orbiting laboratory on a Soyuz-FG rocket, Russia's first manned mission since the failed launch of the unmanned Progress supply ship in August temporarily grounded its Soyuz rockets.
The launch had originally been scheduled for September 22, and the delay had forced a wholesale rejig of the staffing of the space station. Russia's last manned launch was on June 7.
The morning launch of the Soyuz lit up the grey skies over Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in the steppes of Kazakhstan, which were covered by an early fall of snow.
"Everything is normal and we are feeling fine," the crew reported back to mission control as television pictures showed a character from the "Angry Birds" computer game dangling in the cockpit as a mascot.
Mission control reported that American Dan Burbank and Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin had successfully gone into Earth orbit in their Soyuz TMA-22 capsule.
They are due to dock with the ISS at 0533 GMT on Wednesday, joining the three crew on board the station, which has been at half its usual staffing capacity due to the delays after the Progress accident.
Unusually, none of the crew had flown on a Soyuz before. Burbank is a veteran of two US shuttle missions while Shkaplerov and Ivanishin are making their first space flight.
The current ISS crew of American Mike Fossum, Japan's Satoshi Furukawa and Russia's Sergei Volkov will return to Earth on November 22 and a new crew will head up from Baikonur on December 21.
The head of Russia's space agency Vladimir Popovkin said the station's normal staffing timetable would be restored with the December 21 launch.
The crash of the Progress in Siberia eroded faith in Russia's status as a space superpower just as it had taken the responsibility for being the sole nation capable of taking humans to the ISS after the retirement of the US shuttle in July.
The Soyuz-U rocket that failed to take the Progress to orbit is closely related to the Soyuz-FG that is used for manned launches, prompting the temporary grounding of its entire arsenal of the Soyuz rockets after the accident.
Russian scientists are also bracing for the likely loss of the Phobos-Grunt probe for Mars which was launched on November 9 but has failed to head out of Earth's orbit on its course to the red planet.
Popovkin said there was still a chance to make contact and re-programme the probe until the early days of December but if this failed it would burn up in the Earth's atmosphere in January.
"This is something deeply unpleasant for the Russian space industry," Popovkin said.
As well as the Progress and possibly Phobos-Grunt, Russia has lost three navigation satellites, an advanced military satellite and a telecommunications satellite due to faulty launches in the past 12 months.
"The main problem for the Russian space sector -- be it manned or unmanned flights -- is the lowering of quality controls," Igor Marinin, the chief editor of specialist journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Space News) told AFP.
He said the Russian space agency was feeling the effects from the departure of top specialists in the 1990s, although it had now started taking steps to reverse the trend.
"But the Phobos-Grunt mishap is not in a position to affect everything," Marinin added, praising Monday's rocket launch. "I am sure we won't have any problems with manned flights in the coming years."
The recent problems were a major disappointment for Russia in the year marking half a century since Yuri Gagarin made man's first voyage into space from the same historic cosmodrome.
The Soyuz rocket design first flew in the late 1960s and has a proud safety record, with Russia boasting that its simplicity has allowed it to outlive the shuttle.
Whereas NASA endured the fatal loss of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles in 1986 and 2003, Moscow has not suffered a fatality in space since the crew of Soyuz-11 died in 1971 in their capsule when returning to Earth.
by Vyacheslav Oseledko
(c) 2011 AFP
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