A US-Russian crew blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome    on   Saturday in a mission to keep the International Space Station operating despite the US space shuttle disaster.

   

Live television pictures showed the Soyuz capsule carrying the crew of two lifting off at 0353 GMT into a partly cloudy sky on the first manned flight to the ISS since Columbia broke up on re-entry in February.

 

Edward Lu (R) and Yuri Malenchenko

Space officials said the craft had entered Earth orbit without incident. Preparations were under way for the Soyuz to dock with the ISS on Monday -- after 33 trips around the Earth.

   

"This flight is proceeding according to plan. All parameters are according to norms," Vladimir Solovyov, flight director for the ISS, told reporters at mission control outside Moscow. "The crew is feeling fine but they have a long working day ahead."

   

The six-month mission by Russian flight commander Yuri Malenchenko, 41, and US flight engineer Edward Lu, 39, aims to keep the $95 billion ISS flying and underscore the importance of continued work in space.

   

Seven astronauts died in the Columbia disaster, which left Russia with the bulk of the work of ferrying crews and equipment to the 16-nation station. Columbia did not visit the ISS.  The current mission is to replace a crew of three – US station commander Ken Bowersox, flight engineer Donald Pettit and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin.

 

Lu and Malenchenko will be eagerly awaited by the current ISS crew who were to return in March but had to extend their mission after the Columbia tragedy.

  

Their return to Earth was put back from March after all US shuttles were grounded until an investigation into the disaster was completed. The crew is now due to return on May 4 aboard a Soyuz craft already docked at the space station,   while   the new capsule will remain there.

 

Earlier, as the Soyuz rocket tore up into the sky in a burst of orange giving off clouds of smoke clapping broke out at the mission control room.  But Lu's brother Rick and fiancee Christine waited tensely as they watched the US cosmonaut on a TV screen as a countdown began toward orbit.

 

They looked anxiously on as the screen went fuzzy at  one  point  announced that the craft had successfully reached orbit. "Oh, boy!" exclaimed Rick.

  

"It's ecstatic," said Christine. "I'm so relieved after that last stage. I was holding my breath. It's my first launch. The relief is overwhelming."“We're so happy for him. He was so excited about the launch," said Rick.