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Russian-American trio head for space station

By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya

KOROLYOV, Russia (Reuters) - A Soyuz spacecraft carrying two Russians and an American blasted off on Tuesday for the International Space Station (ISS), where the men are to spend five months in orbit.

The Russian-built Soyuz TMA-06M lifted off on time from the Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan for the two-day trip to the station, orbiting about 250 miles above Earth.

"The space ship has entered orbit," an announcer at the mission control centre in Korolyov, outside Moscow, said nine minutes later, prompting a cheer from flight engineers, space officials and relatives watching on a giant screen.

"Everything went well. There was a small issue with pressure on board but we fixed it immediately," Vladimir Solovyov, flight director for the Russian segment of the space station, told journalists.

U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford is making his second space voyage, while cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin are on their first mission.

In footage from the cramped capsule, Tarelkin pumped his spacesuited fist after the successful lift-off while a stuffed toy hippopotamus donated by one of the cosmonauts' daughters as a good luck charm floated in zero gravity as the craft reached orbit.

The trio will join the current ISS crew, Yuri Malenchenko of Russia, Sunita Williams of the United States and Akihiko Hoshide of Japan, who are to return to Earth on November 12.

Another crew of three will join Novitsky, Tarelkin and Ford aboard the station, a $100 billion research complex funded by 15 nations, in late December.

The rocket carrying the Soyuz craft lifted off from a launch pad at Baikonur that had not been used for a manned mission in 30 years. The platform had been renovated so that it could be used while the main pad used for manned launches is refurbished.

Tuesday's was initially scheduled for October 15 but was postponed because of problems with an unspecified piece of equipment that had to be replaced, according to Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Russia's space program has suffered a series of humiliating setbacks in recent months, mostly involving unmanned missions such as satellite launches, that industry veterans blame on a decade of crimped budgets and a brain drain.

Since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet last year, the U.S. space agency NASA must rely on Russia to take astronauts to the station at a cost of $60 million each.

NASA is working with private companies to develop craft it hopes will be able to do the job by 2017.

(Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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