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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ISS Crew Blasts Off at Baikonur

APAn Orthodox priest blessing cosmonaut Pedro Duque, right, before Saturday's launch.
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- A U.S.-Russian crew blasted off to the international space station on Saturday for a 200-day mission, days after China's first manned space flight fueled speculation that it may join the orbital project.

With U.S. space shuttles still grounded after a disaster this year, the station's survival depends on Russian spacecraft. The three-man crew aboard the Soyuz TMA-3 craft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday morning, and is due to dock with the 16-nation orbital platform early Monday.

"This is a very historic day. It again demonstrates the depth of commitment to this partnership," NASA chief Sean O'Keefe said after the launch.

Family and friends watched the launch on a screen in the observation area, quietly waiting for 600 seconds to pass -- the time the Soyuz takes to reach orbit and considered the most dangerous part of the journey -- before bursting into applause.

U.S. mission commander Michael Foale's young children Ian and Jenna seemed oblivious to pictures of their father strapped into the rocket, choosing to play rather than watch the action.

"Russian cosmonauts and [Russian space authority] Rosaviakosmos are carrying the substantial load of maintaining the space station," O'Keefe said, adding that new space power China might also take part one day.

Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, who will spend 200 days in space with Foale, has also said China could join in. "We hope the time when we cooperate in manned flights, including within the ISS project, is not too far off," he said Friday.

Spaniard Pedro Duque is accompanying Kaleri and Foale to the $95 billion station for a 10-day mission devoted to experiments and will then return to Earth with the outgoing crew.

American Edward Lu and Russian Yury Malenchenko, who married his fiancee via satellite video link while he was in space and she was in Texas, have been in orbit for six months.

Funding concerns plague the ISS, with Russia launching all manned and supply ships to the station since February when the United States withdrew its shuttles after the Columbia shuttle disintegrated on re-entry, killing the seven crew onboard.

O'Keefe said Russia should press on with its commitment while the United States worked to bring the shuttle back into service. "All the expense and resources the American people are putting into returning the shuttle to flight, we have no intention of passing these bills across to any of our partners," he said.

Russia says it needs more money and has started sending space tourists to the station for a fare of $20 million to help cover the cost of building new Soyuz craft. But U.S. officials complain Russia failed last year to carry out all agreed launches and should make up the shortfall.

Uncertain finances could prompt a delay in the launch of the next Progress cargo ship to the ISS from November to January. Attention was focused on safety after rescuers spent hours looking for the previous mission's crew when they landed hundreds of kilometers off target in May.

As part of tightened security Malenchenko, Lu and Duque will have a satellite phone and a global positioning system. Officials will bring extra transport to the landing area on Oct. 28.