Three-man crew launches to space station as U.S. steps up research

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - A trio of astronauts from the United States, Russia and Italy headed for the International Space Station on Friday, a step toward boosting U.S. research projects aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the three spaceflight veterans blasted off at 11:41 a.m. EDT/1541 GMT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a NASA TV broadcast showed.

Randy Bresnik, with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Sergey Ryazanskiy, with the Russian space agency Roscosmos; and Italy's Paolo Nespoli, with the European Space Agency, were slated to reach the station at 6 p.m. EDT/2200 GMT.

The men will join three crew members already aboard the station, a $100 billion lab that flies about 250 miles above Earth.

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Russian Soyuz rocket launches to International Space Station
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Russian Soyuz rocket launches to International Space Station

The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft carrying the crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017.

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The International Space Station (ISS) crew member Randy Bresnik of the U.S. is assisted during his space suit check at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017.

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

Photographers take pictures as the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft carrying the crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017.

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

A Russian Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft is transported by train to the launch pad at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 26, 2017. The launch of the Soyuz MS-05 rocket, which will take NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli and Russian cosmonaut commander Sergei Ryazansky to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled on July 28, 2017.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

The International Space Station (ISS) crew member Randy Bresnik of the U.S. reacts after donning his space suit, shortly before his launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

Photographers take pictures as the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft carrying the crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft carrying the crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft carrying the crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

An Orthodox priest conducts a blessing in front of the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft set on the launchpad ahead of its upcoming launch, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan July 27, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The International Space Station (ISS) crew member Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia gestures to his family after his space suit check at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft carrying the crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

Crew members of the International Space Station (ISS) expedition 52/53 Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. pose behind a glass wall during a news conference before their launch to the ISS scheduled for July 28, at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, July 27, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft carrying the crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The International Space Station (ISS) crew member Randy Bresnik of the U.S. gestures during his space suit check at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The International Space Station (ISS) crew member Randy Bresnik of the U.S. waves next to Paolo Nespoli of Italy after donning their space suits, shortly before their launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

Russia's Soyuz MS-05 rocket carrying a three-man crew from Italy, Russia and the United States, flies through the sky after blasting off on July 28, 2017 from the Baikonur cosmodrome for a five-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS). A three-man crew carrying NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency blasted off from Kazakhstan for a five-month mission on the International Space Station.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

The International Space Station (ISS) crew members (L to R) Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the U.S. walk after donning space suits, shortly before their launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The International Space Station (ISS) crew members Paolo Nespoli of Italy,waves from a bus before leaving for pre-flight preparation at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan July 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft for the next International Space Station (ISS) crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia, and Randy Bresnik of the U.S., is transported from an assembling hangar to the launchpad ahead of its upcoming launch, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan July 26, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

A policeman stands in front of the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft for the next International Space Station (ISS) crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia, and Randy Bresnik of the U.S., as it is transported from an assembling hangar to the launchpad ahead of its upcoming launch, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan July 26, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft for the next International Space Station (ISS) crew of Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Ryazanskiy of Russia, and Randy Bresnik of the U.S., is transported from an assembling hangar to the launchpad ahead of its upcoming launch, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan July 26, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)

Photographers take pictures as Russia's Soyuz MS-05 rocket carrying a three-man crew from Italy, Russia and the United States, blasts off on July 28, 2017 from the Baikonur cosmodrome for a five-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS). A three-man crew carrying NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency blasted off from Kazakhstan for a five-month mission on the International Space Station.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

US astronaut Randolph Bresnik (NASA), a member of ISS Expedition 52/53 prime crew, and his family after a press conference on the launch of a Soyuz-FG rocket booster carrying the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft at Baikonur Cosmodrome. The launch of the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft crew of Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky (Roscosmos), US astronaut Randolph Bresnik (NASA) and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli (ESA) to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for July 28, 2017.

(Photo by Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images)

Russia's Soyuz MS-05 rocket carrying a three-man crew from Italy, Russia and the United States, blasts off on July 28, 2017 from the Baikonur cosmodrome for a five-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS). A three-man crew carrying NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency blasted off from Kazakhstan for a five-month mission on the International Space Station.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia's Soyuz MS-05 rocket carrying a three-man crew from Italy, Russia and the United States, blasts off on July 28, 2017 from the Baikonur cosmodrome for a five-month mission on the International Space Station (ISS). A three-man crew carrying NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency blasted off from Kazakhstan for a five-month mission on the International Space Station.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli (ESA), left, a member of ISS Expedition 52/53 prime crew, and his wife after a press conference on the launch of a Soyuz-FG rocket booster carrying the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft at Baikonur Cosmodrome. The launch of the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft crew of Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky (Roscosmos), US astronaut Randolph Bresnik (NASA) and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli (ESA) to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for July 28, 2017.

 (Photo by Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images)

A Russian Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft is installed on its launch pad at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 26, 2017. The launch of the Soyuz MS-05 rocket, which will take NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli and Russian cosmonaut commander Sergei Ryazansky to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled on July 28, 2017.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

A Russian Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft is prepared to be rolled out to the launch pad at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 26, 2017. The launch of the Soyuz MS-05 rocket, which will take NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli and Russian cosmonaut commander Sergei Ryazansky to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled on July 28, 2017.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik (C) a member of the main crew of the 52/53 expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), reacts as his spacesuit is tested at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Baikonur on July 28, 2017, prior to blasting off to the ISS. The crew of NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Ryazansky are scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft from the Baikonur cosmodrome on July 28.

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

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Their arrival will mean NASA for the first time has four crew members instead of three available for medical experiments, technology demonstrations and other research aboard the station, the U.S. space agency said.

The extra astronaut will effectively double the amount of time for research, program manager Kirk Shireman said at a station conference last week.

NASA does not oversee the Russian staff, which was reduced to two in April until a long-delayed research module joins the station next year.

Previously, Russia flew three cosmonauts, with the remaining three positions filled by a combination of European, Japanese, Canadian and U.S. astronauts.

By the end of next year, NASA intends to begin flying astronauts aboard space taxis under development by SpaceX and Boeing. Both spaceships have room for a fourth seat, bumping the station's overall crew size to seven once Russia returns to full staffing.

NASA is using the station to prepare for human missions to the moon and Mars and to stimulate commercial space transportation, pharmaceutical research, manufacturing and other businesses.

The agency also conducts physics, astronomy and Earth science investigations aboard the outpost, which has been staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since 2000.

Bresnik, 49, last flew on the space shuttle in 2009 during a space station assembly mission. Ryazanskiy, 42, spent five-and-a-half months aboard the station in 2013-2014. Nespoli, 60, is making his third space flight, having previously served on both space shuttle and space station crews.

The men are slated to return to Earth in December.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)

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