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ALMATY (Reuters) - A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a Russian, an American and a Canadian blasted off on Wednesday to the International Space Station (ISS), where the men are to spend half a year in orbit.
The Russian-built Soyuz TMA-07M roared off on time, at 1212 GMT, from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
"The crew are now safely in orbit. Congratulations," said the television channel of U.S. space agency NASA, which broadcast the launch.
On the crew's two-day trip to the ISS, Canadian Chris Hadfield is joined by U.S. astronaut Tom Mashburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko.
They will join U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin, who have been manning the $100-billion, 15-nation research complex since October.
A brightly coloured toy clown from a popular Soviet-era TV show for children, serving as an indicator of weightlessness, started floating in the cabin when the spacecraft reached its preliminary orbit nine minutes into the flight.
"We are feeling well," the three-nation crew told Mission Control outside Moscow.
Hadfield will be the first Canadian to command the space station when Ford, Novitsky and Tarelkin complete their mission in March.
Hadfield has said he will play a Canadian-made guitar in space. Romanenko took a mouth-organ to orbit to support the "space band" led by the Canadian.
Romanenko's father Yuri, who flew into space three times, played a guitar in space when he once manned the Soviet-built Mir orbital complex for more than 10 months.
The docking, the 150th trip by Soyuz craft to the space station, is set for December 21, the date interpreted by different groups as the end of days, because it marks the end of an age in a 5,125 year-old Maya calendar.
"If, despite all the arguments provided by scientists, this 'apocalypse' still takes place, the ISS crew will be the only surviving earthlings," Russian space agency Roscosmmos said in a press release. "Fortunately enough, this is just a fantasy."
Shortly after the docking, the six-men crew will celebrate several winter holidays in orbit; Christmas, the New Year and then Orthodox Christmas.
But the holidays will be followed by hard work, which for the incoming crew will include the unloading of several cargo ships due to arrive at the ISS, two space walks and about 150 scientific experiments.
Russia's space programme has suffered a series of humiliating setbacks in recent months, mostly involving unmanned missions such as satellite launches.
Since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet last year, the United States has relied on Russia's single-use Soyuz spacecraft, a version of the Vostok spaceship which took the world's first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961.
NASA, which reportedly pays Russia $60 million for each astronaut taken to the ISS, is working with private companies to develop craft it hopes will be able to do the job by 2017.
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Jon Hemming)
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