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Italy's first female astronaut heads to ISS in Russian craft

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Samantha CristoforettiSamantha CristoforettiItaly's first female astronaut is heading to the International Space Station. The Soyuz capsule carrying Samantha Cristoforetti blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Cristoforetti was due on Monday to join Russian Elana Serova, who was already on board the ISS.

It will be only the second time in the orbiting platform's 16-year history that two women have been aboard on long-term missions, reports.

Also inside the Russian Soyuz capsule heading for ISS was the Russian Anton Shkaplerov and Terry Virts of America's agency NASA, who will be the station's new commander.

'Nothing special'

The Soyuz is due to dock with the station early Monday, about 418 kilometers (260 miles) above Earth.

Cristoforetti, 37, an Italian Air Force pilot, deflected questions about becoming Italy's first female astronaut during a prelaunch press conference from Kazakhstan on Saturday.

"I have done nothing special to be the first Italian woman to fly to space. I just wanted to fly to space and I happen to be the first," said Cristoforetti while speaking in Russian.

US 'taxis' from 2017

The ISS's new crew is due to spend six months in orbit. Their schedule includes three spacewalks to prepare the station for a new fleet of US commercial "taxi" spacecraft that are due to begin flying crew to the station in late 2017.

The ISS has been short-staffed since November 9. That is when Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst of Germany and NASA's Reid Wiseman returned home.

They had been in orbit on the station, which serves as a laboratory operated by a partnership of 15 nations, for five-and-a-half months.

November 24 2014, 11:44

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