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Americans, Russian blast off for space station

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Two U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut blasted off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan on Tuesday for a two-day trip to the International Space Station.

The rocket took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 5:35 p.m. EDT (2135 GMT), marking the 100th flight to the orbital outpost, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that is nearing completion after more than a decade of construction 220 miles above Earth.

Riding inside the Soyuz capsule were cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, a former station commander returning for a second stint, NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock, a veteran shuttle astronaut, and first-time flier Shannon Walker, Houston's first hometown astronaut.

The trio will become part of the 24th live-aboard expedition crew headed by cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov, who, along with cosmonaut Mikhail Kornieinko and NASA's Tracy Caldwell Dyson, were launched to the station on April 2.

The arrival of Walker will mark the first time the station's live-aboard crew includes two women.

"I'm very happy and a little bit apprehensive," Walker, speaking in Russian, told reporters during a prelaunch press conference broadcast on NASA TV.

Walker's husband, four-time shuttle astronaut Andy Thomas, who served aboard the Russian Mir space station 12 years ago, was among the dozens of NASA officials, friends and relatives in Kazakhstan to bid the crew farewell. Thomas said during a NASA interview that he was "excited, thrilled, nervous and a tiny bit jealous."

Among Walker's personal items is a watch worn by Amelia Earhart during a pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Walker, a private pilot and member of the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots, said in a news release she hoped honoring Earhart might draw some new pilots into the field.

The crew is scheduled to reach the station at 6:25 p.m. EDT (2225 GMT) Thursday.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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