Multi-national crew blasts off for space station

The Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft carrying the International Space Station crew blasts off from the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome.

A Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan on Sunday to deliver three new crew members to the International Space Station, including Italy's first female astronaut.

A Soyuz capsule holding incoming station commander Terry Virts, with the US space agency NASA, Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov, with the Russian Federal Space Agency, and first-time flier Samantha Cristoforetti, with the European Space Agency, lifted off at 4:01 p.m. EST (2101 GMT).

They were slated to reach the station, which flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth, less than six hours later.

The station, owned an operated by a partnership of 15 nations, serves an orbiting laboratory for life science, materials research, technology development and other experiments that take advantage of the unique microgravity environment and vantage point of space.

"I think that 100 years from now, 500 years from now, people will look back on this as the initial baby steps that we took going into the solar system. In the same way that we look back on Columbus and the other explorers 500 years ago, this is the way people will look at this time in history," Virts said.

The US$100 billion (S$1.3 billion) research laboratory has been short-staffed since Nov 9 when Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, European astronaut Alexander Gerst and NASA's Reid Wiseman returned home after 5.5 months in orbit.

The crew faces a busy six-months in orbit, including a trio of spacewalks to prepare the station for a new fleet of US commercial space taxis that are due to begin flying crew to the station in late 2017.

Cristoforetti, 37, an Italian Air Force pilot, deflected questions about becoming Italy's first female astronaut during a webcast prelaunch press conference from Kazakhstan on Saturday.

"I have done nothing special to be the first Italian woman to fly to space. I just wanted to fly to space and I happen to be the first," Cristoforetti, who was speaking in Russian, said through a translator.

When asked by a reporter if she planned wear cosmetics in space, Cristoforetti looked confused, then replied, "Maybe you should ask Terry. Maybe he wants to take some makeup with him."