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Soyuz rocket sends US-Russian crew (and fish) to space station

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A Soyuz rocket launched an American astronaut, two Russian cosmonauts and 32 small fish into orbit Tuesday, kicking off a five-month mission to the International Space Station for the human and aquatic explorers.

The Soyuz rocket roared into a clear blue sky from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to begin a two-day flight to the space station. Liftoff occurred at 6:51 a.m. ET.

Riding aboard the rocket's Soyuz TMA-06M space capsule are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Evgeny Tarelkin. The three men are due to dock at the station on Thursday at 8:35 a.m. ET, and join three crewmates already aboard the orbiting lab. Novitsky is commanding the Soyuz flight.

"I think it's going to be something special, and I will get unforgettable memories," Novitsky said during a NASA briefing before the mission. Novitsky picked a small toy hippo, a gift from his teenage daughter Yana, to use an indicator of when the Soyuz reached the weightless environment of space. [Launch Photos: Soyuz Rocket Blasts Off With Station Crew]

Ford, Novitsky and Tarelkin are the second half of the Expedition 33 crew on the International Space Station. Their mission marks the second spaceflight for Ford, a veteran NASA shuttle pilot, and the first trip to space for Novitsky and Tarelkin.

The 32 medaka fish hitching a ride to the space station on the Soyuz capsule are part of an experiment to study how fish adapt to the absence of gravity. The fish will live inside a space-age fish tank, called the Aquatic Habitat, which was delivered to the space station on an earlier flight.

"I've got training on these fish ... they're a bit larger than guppies," Ford said before flight. "It's 32 fish, plus the three of us."

Most crewed Soyuz launches have lifted off from the historic launch pad used by Yuri Gagarin, who made the first human spaceflight in 1961. But that pad is being renovated, so Tuesday's launch blasted off from a different pad, called Site 31. NASA said it was the first manned launch from the site in 28 years.

The new U.S.-Russian crew will join NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who have been living on the station since July. Williams is commanding the station's Expedition 33 crew.

Tuesday's Soyuz launch came at a busy time for the space station crew.

On Sunday, a robotic Dragon space capsule built by the private spaceflight company SpaceX will depart the space station to wrap up the first cargo delivery flight for NASA under a $1.6 billion commercial resupply contract. On Oct. 31, an unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft will launch and dock at the space station within six hours to deliver more cargo.

Then, on Nov. 1, Williams and Hoshide will venture outside the space station in a spacewalk to fix an ammonia leak in the orbiting laboratory's cooling system.

Williams, Hoshide and Malenchenko are due to return to Earth on Nov. 19. Ford will then take command of the space station's Expedition 34 mission at that time.

You can watch Thursday's Soyuz docking live on via a NASA TV feed. The NASA broadcast will begin at 8 a.m. ET.

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