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.

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)