BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AFP) - Two Russians and an American on Tuesday blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) on a Soyuz rocket in Russia’s first manned space launch for almost five months.

Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin and American Joseph Acaba started their journey on top of the Russian Soyuz FG rocket under crystal-clear skies from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, an AFP correspondent said. Their Soyuz TMA-04M capsule was successfully delivered into orbit, with the rocket stages detaching as planned and all the crew were feeling good, mission control said.

They are due to dock the space station after a two-day journey on Thursday morning.

Russia is now the sole nation capable of transporting humans to the ISS after the withdrawal from service of the US shuttle but this blast-off was the first manned flight since December from the legendary Baikonur cosmodrome. The launch had been delayed by one-and-a-half months after the spacecraft the three spacemen were initially to use in the mission was shown in testing not to be hermetically sealed and could not be used for safety reasons. As a result, their mission has been cut down to 126 days but according to Padalka it will be extremely intense with 40 experiments planned on the Russian segment of the station alone.

Russia’s space programme has been beset by a litany of technical problems which have led to the loss of a half dozen satellites and vehicles over the last year, including a Progress cargo vessel bound for the ISS. The Soyuz rockets - the workhorse of the Russian space programme and the direct descendant of the rocket that took Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961 - were grounded after the Progress crashed into Siberia after launch. However all manned launches since Russia resumed using the Soyuz have been textbook and hitch-free.