By Dmitry Solovyov
KOROLYOV, Russia (Reuters) - A Russian Soyuz spacecraft with three astronauts on board blasted off from Kazakhstan on Monday to join a U.S.-Russian duo manning the International Space Station (ISS).
Russian Oleg Kotov, NASA's Timothy Creamer and Japan's Soichi Noguchi lifted off from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as planned, at 0052 Moscow time (4:52 p.m. EST on Sunday).
"Attention, spaceship Soyuz TMA-17, successfully reached its designated orbit," said an announcer at mission control to the applause of control workers and officials from the Russian, U.S. and Japanese space agencies.
After the first nine, most critical minutes into the flight, the Soyuz reached its targeted orbit at altitudes varying between 200 km and 242 km (125-151 miles) above earth.
The space trio smiled and wove hands during the lift-off. A fluffy toy mascot hanging on a string over their heads started floating around the cabin as they reached weightlessness.
"Now it's all normal, they have started their work in orbit. At 0800 (5 a.m. GMT) we will tell them to go to bed," Vladimir Solovyov, the chief of piloted missions at the Russian segment of the ISS, told reporters after the launch.
"Their programme is quite a tense one," he said. "Space walks will start after the (New Year) holidays."
After docking with the ISS on Dec 23, the three astronauts will join American Jeff Williams and Russian Maxim Suraev who have manned the multi-billion-dollar station since October. The five men will be the station's Expedition 22.
Williams and Suraev are due to return to earth in March. Solovyov said the three astronauts launched on Monday would spend 126 days in space and return in May.
Russia's partners in exploiting the ISS are U.S. space agency NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japanese and Canadian space agencies. Moscow has said it wants to extend the life of the $100-billion ISS beyond 2015. This year Russia doubled to four the number of manned flights to the ISS aboard its single-use Soyuz spacecraft.
Solovyov said the burden on Russia to support the station was only set to grow after NASA retires its aging fleet of Space Shuttles sometime in late 2010.
"We will support the life of the station by launching our transport and cargo spacecraft," he said.
This space launch breached one of the traditions of Russia's space industry -- to abstain from launches on Mondays -- established in the time of Sergei Korolyov, the famed designer of the R-7 rocket that is a prototype of the Souyz.
"Well yes, but no worries -- the launch time was only 52 minutes into Monday," Solovyov admitted with a smile.
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov)