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US-Russian crew blasts in to space

A Russian rocket carrying a three-person US-Russian crew to the international space station blasted off successfully from Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz TMA-19 was carrying US astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker and Russia's Fyodor Yurchikhin to the international orbiting laboratory for a mission lasting about six months.

The trio will be onboard the space station to see the final shuttle - the Endeavour - depart from its last planned mission to the lab in November before the fleet is finally retired.

With the shuttle being phased out, the Soyuz rocket will take over as the only means by which astronauts will be able to travel to the space station.

Wheelock said before the start that he was saddened to see the shuttle go, but he described his mission as an exciting new start.

"Of course, it's a big change in our program ... but change is not always bad," Wheelock, who takes over as commander of Expedition 25 as soon as the current crew returns to Earth in about three months time, said at a pre-launch news conference.

A crowd of astronauts' relatives, space officials and others gasped with awe as they watched the rocket slowly dissapearing at a distance, leaving a ghostly white cloud behind. They broke into applause on announcement of the craft's successful entry into orbit nine minutes after the launch.

"That was probably one of the more beautiful launches I have ever seen," NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said.

Shortly after, people at the launch pad saw the glittering dot of the space station quickly moving overhead in a rare coincidence.

The liftoff marked a landmark, being the hundredth flight in the station program.

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