A Russian spacecraft took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's largest space launch facility, in Kazakhstan on Sunday at 4:01 p.m. EST to carry three astronauts from the United States, Italy and Russia to the International Space Station (ISS).

About six hours later by 9:48 p.m., Terry Virts, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Anton Shkaplerov, from the Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, and Samantha Cristoforetti, from the European Space Agency (ESA), arrived at the ISS, a habitable spacecraft orbiting Earth which also serves as a research laboratory for life sciences, technology development and other experiments that take advantage of spacecraft's location and microgravity environment.

The three astronauts join Barry Wilmore, from NASA, and Alexander Samoukutyaev and Elena Serova, from the Roscosmos.

The space station, which has a volume equivalent to that of a five-bedroom house and could support up to six crew members at a time, had been understaffed since Nov. 9 when astronauts Reid Wiseman, Alexander Gerst and Maxim Suraev, went home after spending over five months in orbit.

The new ISS crews will spend six months in orbit during which they are set for a trio of spacewalks in order to prepare the $100 billion station for the new fleet of commercial space taxis that will be used to bring crews to the station by 2017.

"They are scheduled to greet a host of cargo vehicles during their mission, including a number of U.S. commercial resupply flights, two Russian Progress resupply missions and the departure of the final European ATV cargo spacecraft," NASA said.

With her participation in Expedition 42, 37-year old Cristoforetti, a captain in the Italian Air Force who joined ESA in September 2009, became Italy's first female astronaut. Being the first woman from her country to go into space should be a source of pride as the six Italian astronauts who were sent before her were all males. 

Cristoforetti, however, said that she did nothing particularly extraordinary to become the first Italian woman to fly in space.

"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 said.

The Soyuz spacecraft also carried some cargo for research investigations at the ISS including a biological sample kit that will be used to collect blood, saliva or urine samples from crew members which could help shed light on the effects of spaceflight on people's health while onboard the space station.

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Tags: Soyuz ISS