KOROLYOV, Russia - Three astronauts blasted off on Monday to return a full crew to the International Space Station (ISS) as Russia seeks to restore confidence in its space program following the recent crash of a cargo spaceship and several botched launches.
The launch at 0414 GMT was the first since NASA ended its 30-year shuttle program in July, heralding a gap of several years when the 16 nations investing in the $100-billion space station will rely solely on Russia to ferry crews.
"The spaceship has reached orbit," Flight Engineer Anton Shkaplerov said in a radioed message to the cavernous Mission Control centre in a northern Moscow suburb. Applause broke out as the crew flashed a thumbs-up signal to onboard cameras.
The mission had been delayed since September over safety fears after an unmanned Russian Progress craft taking supplies to astronauts broke up in the atmosphere in August, one of the worst Russian space mishaps in decades.