updated 12/21/2005 3:36:42 PM ET 2005-12-21T20:36:42

An unmanned Russian cargo ship carrying supplies and Christmas gifts for the crew of the international space station blasted off Wednesday from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a spokesman said.

The Progress M-55 was launched at 9:39 p.m. (1:39 p.m. ET), according to a duty officer with the Federal Space Agency who was not authorized to give his name.

In addition to 2.8 tons of food, water, books, DVDs and scientific equipment, the ship is also bringing cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and astronaut William McArthur chocolate, two red holiday caps and gifts from their families.

The ship is expected to dock Friday with the station orbiting about 220 miles above the Earth.

McArthur and Tokarev are in the third month of their six-month mission aboard the space station.

Russia's Progress cargo ships and Soyuz capsules have been the station's lifeline since the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. The shuttle program was suspended for more than two years. Discovery flew to the station in July, but problems with its insulation raised doubts about when the next shuttle would fly.

Also Wednesday, a Kosmos 3M rocket carrying a military and a communications satellite successfully blasted off from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia, the space agency duty officer said.

Russia’s commercial space program has suffered a series of setbacks this year, as Moscow tries to compete in the international market for lucrative satellite launches.

A $142 million European Space Agency satellite was destroyed in October when a Russian booster failed. In a separate accident, the Russian military lost an experimental unmanned space vehicle as it returned to Earth during a test flight.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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