HOUSTON — A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying a three-man, multinational crew is speeding toward a Dec. 23 rendezvous with the International Space Station, following the start of a two-day transit with a successful Dec. 21 liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, the Soyuz commander, flight engineers Don Pettit, of NASA, and Andre Kuipers, of the European Space Agency, were on course to dock with the orbiting science laboratory on Dec. 23 at 10:22 a.m. EST.

The linkup will restore the station to sustained six-person crew operations for the first since mid-September, when staffing was reduced in response to the late August third-stage failure of a similar Soyuz booster carrying a Progress cargo capsule.

The newcomers plan software upgrades to the station’s U.S. segment; the first berthing of a U.S. commercial resupply craft, following the scheduled Feb. 7 launch of the SpaceX Dragon cargo mission; a mid-February Russian spacewalk to move a Strela cargo crane and apply external orbital debris shielding; and the March arrival of the third European Space Agency Automated Transfer Vehicle with cargo.

“You are well prepared to take on these many challenges,” Mike Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, assured the three men as their liftoff neared.

The five-month Soyuz 29S mission began with a launch from Baikonur on Dec. 21 at 8:16 a.m. EST, or 7:16 p.m. local time, under clear skies and frigid conditions. Within 10 min. of leaving the pad, the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft settled into a preliminary orbit and deployed solar arrays and communications antennas. The Soyuz-FG booster performance was flawless, according to Russia’s mission control.

The newcomers will be greeted upon docking by the station’s Expedition 30 commander, Dan Burbank of NASA, and Russian flight engineers Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin.

Burbank’s crew docked with the station Nov. 16, joining U.S., Russian and Japanese astronauts for a four-day handover before the last of the Expedition 29 crew descended aboard their Soyuz spacecraft into Kazakhstan, ending a 5-1/2 month mission.

All three of the newest crewmembers are spaceflight veterans. Pettit, a 56-year-old chemical engineer, served as a station flight engineer during a 161-day mission to the station in 2002-03.

Prior Experience

Kononenko, 47, from RSC Energia, served as a station flight engineer during a 199-day mission in 2008, and Kuipers, a 53-year-old Dutch medical doctor, visited the station during an 11-day Soyuz mission in 2004.

The Aug. 24 failure of the Soyuz-U launcher a little more than 5 min. into flight sent its Progress cargo capsule plummeting back to Earth. A Russian investigation traced the cause to a blockage in a third-stage fuel line and poor quality control. The incident led to a recall of Soyuz hardware and the implementation of new inspection procedures.

Russia’s timely recovery prevented a mid-November decision by station managers to operate the station without crew while a prolonged Soyuz recovery unfolded. The Russian launcher became the only means of crew transportation to the station with the retirement of NASA’s shuttle program in July.

“I’m really impressed with the Russians and their ability to keep going,” says William Gerstenmainer, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and space operations, who led a U.S. delegation to Baikonur. “It’s a strong testament to the Russian spirit to keep moving forward.”

The 15-nation orbital outpost has been staffed continuously since November 2000.