Leaving politics behind, Russian-U.S. crew blasts off for space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 25 Wed Mar 26, 2014 4:00am IST

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 25 (Reuters) - Two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut blasted off for six-month stay aboard the International Space Station on Tuesday, a partnership unaffected by the political rancor and economic sanctions triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea.

The Russian Soyuz rocket carrying cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronaut Steven Swanson lifted off at 5:17 p.m. EDT/2117 GMT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

"The crew is doing great, everything is nominal aboard," a Russian ground controller, speaking through a translator, said during a live broadcast of the launch on NASA Television.

The Soyuz capsule perched atop the rocket is scheduled to reach the space station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth, about six hours after launch.

The arrival of Skvortsov, Artemyev and Swanson will return the station to a full six-member crew. The orbital outpost, a project of 15 nations, has been short-staffed since two other cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut returned to Earth on March 11.

The space station partnership, overseen by the United States and Russia, so far has been immunized from the political and economic fallout following Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

"We don't want to see political turmoil and it could ultimately get in the way of our spaceflight, but from the operator standpoint ... this is absolutely a non-issue for us," NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, who is due to fly to the station in May, said in a CBS News interview on March 18.

"I mean, we're three really good friends climbing into a Soyuz (capsule) to fly into space. All politics aside, there's no doubt it's going to work for us," Wiseman said.

The United States currently pays Russia more than $63 million per seat to fly its astronauts to and from the space station.

The Russian part of the station taps electricity generated by U.S.-owned and operated solar wing panels and supplements its ground-based communications with NASA's orbital satellite network, among other U.S.-provided services.

One of the first orders of business for the newly arriving station crewmembers will be to capture and berth a Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon cargo capsule, which is due to launch on Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Two Russian spacewalks are planned during the crew's six-month mission, as well as two or three outings overseen by NASA. (Editing by Eric Walsh)