Soyuz rocket ready for launch
Baikonur - Technicians at the Russian-leased space centre in Kazakhstan hoisted a rocket onto its launch pad ahead of Friday's blast-off of a Nasa astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Nasa's Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko are to blast off at 04:04 on Friday for their six-month mission in the orbiting science lab.
Workers at the craft's storage hangar slid open the gate just before daybreak on Wednesday and mounted the Soyuz rocket on a flatbed train for a slow trip to the launch site.
Armed police with sniffer dogs walked ahead of the train and a helicopter circled overhead amid heightened security following the Moscow subway bombings, which killed dozens of people.
At the launch pad where Yuri Gagarin began the first human trip into orbit in 1961, the rocket was winched up into place. Later, supporting mechanical arms were slowly raised into place, to keep the rocket secure until shortly before blast-off.
The three astronauts departing on Friday will join three crew members currently aboard the space station - Russian commander Igor Kotov, Nasa astronaut Timothy J Creamer and Soichi Noguchi of Japan. Within days of the Soyuz docking at the space station, a US shuttle with seven people on board is due to arrive for a brief visit, ensuring a busy time for the newcomers.
"They'll be jumping straight into a space shuttle arriving next week that carries several tons of supplies, including additional life support equipment," Nasa spokesperson Rob Navias said.
Navias said one of the upcoming expedition's main objectives will be to install additional research equipment and expand science capability on the station.
The Soyuz has evolved from its role as the workhorse of the Soviet Union's space programme - it launched the world's first satellite into space in 1957 - into an essential resource in ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.
Dependence on the Russian-made spacecraft will increase over the next few years with only four launches left for the space shuttle before it is retired. That will leave Nasa without its own means to send astronauts into space for the first time in half a century.