Multi-national crew blasts off for space station

A Soyuz capsule lifted off at 9pm GMT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan.

The Soyuz Capsule before lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 23 November 2014. Picture: Nasa Facebook page.

KAZAKHSTAN - 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 9pm GMT.

Picture: Nasa Facebook page.

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

The station, owned and 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 to 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 $100 billion research laboratory has been short-staffed since 9 November when Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, European astronaut Alexander Gerst and Nasa's Reid Wiseman returned home after over five 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 to wear cosmetics in space, Cristoforetti looked confused, then replied, "Maybe you should ask Terry. Maybe he wants to take some makeup with him."