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* First manned mission since U.S. shuttle programme retired
* Launch was delayed from September over safety fears
* Russia seeks to restore confidence in space programme
MOSCOW, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Three astronauts in Russia's Soyuz spacecraft safely docked with the International Space Station on Wednesday, to the relief of agencies who had feared they might have to leave the orbiting base empty for the first time in a decade.
Moscow hopes the smooth flight -- the first since NASA retired its space shuttles this summer -- will restore faith in its space programme after the crash of a freight ship and a series of botched launches.
The NASA shutdown means Russian spaceships are the only way to ferry goods and crews to the $100-billion space station, backed by 16 nations.
Ground support teams had scrambled to draw up plans to leave the orbital station unmanned should the Soyuz flight have problems.
The Soyuz TMA-22 crew linked up minutes ahead of schedule at 0524 GMT with the space station suspended 248 miles (399km) above the Pacific Ocean after a cramped, two-day journey from Russia's Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan.
Veteran NASA astronaut Daniel Burbank, 50, is taking over command of the station, while cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, 39, and Anatoly Ivanishin, 42, made their maiden space voyage.
"We are doing great, there were no problems whatsoever. We are now flying over Australia. The view is breathtaking," Shkaplerov said in a video link with his family at Mission Control in Moscow.
NASA TV showed station crew members Mike Fossum of NASA, Japan's Satoshi Furukawa and Russia's Sergei Volkov embracing the new arrivals as they floated, grinning through the hatch.
The mission has been delayed since September over safety fears sparked when an unmanned Russian Progress craft broke up in the atmosphere in August.
Wednesday's docking briefly returns a full, six-person crew to orbit before the current residents return to Earth later this month. The station will only regain full occupancy with the planned launch of a new crew in late December.
Shkaplerov's five-year-old daughter, Irina, asked about a small stuffed bird from the mobile app Angry Birds that she had given him for the trip. The stuffed toy now serves as the crew's mascot and zero gravity indicator.
"Your bird is with me. It made it safely to the station. I will show it to you soon," Shkaplerov reassured her.
A string of space failures have marred celebrations marking this year's 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering orbit. The problems have also pointed to deeper troubles with Russia's space industry.
Moscow hopes the by-the-book docking will begin to restore its reputation after more trouble last week when a launch touted as post-Soviet Russia's interplanetary debut went awry.
Russia is likely to have lost the $165-million Phobos-Grunt probe, which is stuck in orbit and may drop to Earth after it failed to set a course toward Mars' moon last Wednesday.
Botched launches have also lost Russia a high-tech military orbiter, a costly telecommunication satellite and set back plans for a global navigation system to rival the U.S. navigation system GPS.
While NASA suffered the tragic loss of crews on its Columbia and Challenger shuttles in 2003 and 1986, Russia's last troubles with manned flights date back to the Soyuz-11 mission in 1971, when three cosmonauts died on re-entry. (Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Andrew Heavens)