|The Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft carrying the International Space Station (ISS) crew of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams blasts off from its launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome July 15, 2012. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - A Russian rocket carrying an international crew of three blasted off without a hitch Sunday for the International Space Station in the first manned mission in two months.
NASA's Sunita Williams and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and Yury Malenchenko of Russia started their journey on top of the Soyuz-FG rocket under the open skies of the Kazakh steppe on schedule at 0240 GMT.
The three crew members gave big thumbs up signs after the sleek white craft pierced a thin layering of white clouds and safely reached orbit about nine minutes later.
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 speed.
The astronauts read calmly through 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 TMA-05M capsule is scheduled to dock with the Russian-operated Rassvet module on Tuesday at 5:52 GMT.
The workhorse of Russia's space programme -- 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 has seen 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 the 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.
"Getting my haircut. Next one will be on ISS!" Akihiko tweeted on the eve of the launch.
Williams 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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